Monday, February 28, 2011

The Pope has Packed His Bag... Have You?


The brothers of the Godzdogz team will be leading a group of 50 to WYD 2011 in Madrid. We will be visiting Dominican sites on the way, with opportunities for catechesis, spiritual talks, the sacraments, and prayer.

Date: 12-22 August 2011
Cost: £550 (incl. food, transportation, accommodation, and registration)
For those aged 16-35.

The clock is ticking and we still have a few spaces left for this Dominican Pilgrimage, so if you're interested contact wyd@english.op.org. Or hand on our details to someone you think may benefit from this wonderful Catholic youth event!

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Saturday, February 26, 2011

Film Review: Black Swan

With the Academy Awards coming up, Godzdogz will be having a look at some of films that have been nominated.

It is not often I would sit down and watch a film that revolves around the world of a New York ballet company but Darren Aronofsky is rarely constrained by his subject matter. The film revolves around the newly appointed principal dancer Nina (Natalie Portman) and the company's production of Swan Lake. Nina struggles with the dual-role of the White/Black Swan. Whilst the shy and inhibited but gifted performer is perfect for the pure White Swan, she has to carry off the part of the villainous Black Swan, an onstage embodiment of guile and sensuality. The film then chronicles Nina's twisted journey into and battle with hedonism and eventually insanity, as she tries to control the "black swan" within and the "black swans" around her, such as passionate new dancer Lilly and her sleazy director Thomas Leroy.

The film itself is a technical masterpiece. Aronofsky portrays Nina's descent into madness in his characteristically brutal and mind bending fashion. The inspiration of Polanski's Rosemary's Baby is obvious and the film creates a tension that sucks the audience in. Portman's performance, as a young women tottering on the edge, is excellent but alas the character she plays seems to be very one dimensional and is only saved by Portman dragging it up screaming and shouting.

One thing that did strike me about the concept of the film is its rather clichéd dualistic approach. Of course this mentality is as old as humanity itself. The Black Swan represents sensuality and all the delights of the material world, the White Swan represents purity and innocence. This simple division loses sight of the person as a whole: a person, body and soul, created by God in love. A body and soul of the same nature as those taken on fully by the Word in his Incarnation.

The film does not really make any moral judgements, instead adopting a 'zen-lite' balancing philosophy, but the consequences of Nina's struggle seem to confirm the dualist mentality that runs throughout the film. Once Nina has vanquished her internal Black Swan and defeated her body she declares, rather sadly, "I'm perfect."

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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Film Review: True Grit (2010)

With the Academy Awards coming up, Godzdogz will be having a look at some of films that have been nominated.


When it was announced that the Coen Brothers were planning a remake of the classic 1969 western True Grit, even my faith in the Minnesota siblings' genius was tested. As a big fan of the original John Wayne version, I feared that they would  ruin my memories of the original by crafting either a lame-duck identikit tribute or an overtly dark-realistic re-imagining, which would strip the charm and iconic status of the original. Maybe I was still slightly scarred from their 2004 remake of the Lady Killers (which to be fair is much better on the second viewing). My worries however turned out to be unnecessary: True Grit (2010) is a triumph!

The Brothers have tried to go back to Charles Portis' 1968 novel of the same name. The story unfolds through the eyes of 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), who is determined to catch Tom Chaney, the cowardly killer of her father, and bring him to justice. Of course she can not do this on her own and Mattie hires a tough lawman with “true grit” known as Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges). Rooster initially resists her offer but her determination and sheer stubbornness changes his tune and soon enough they, along with a Texas Ranger named La Boeuf (Matt Damon), begin their hunt of Chaney, one that tests the will and “grit” of each trekker.

All three lead actors give a wonderful performance, especially the newcomer Hailee Steinfeld. Their performance helps this remake to stand apart from its forbear. The Coens' perfectly capture the wildness, violence and bleakness of frontier life but amongst the harsh and cold landscape they not only bring out the dark humour of the source material but also add their trademark quirkiness, especially seen in the frontier dentist character.

Throughout their works the Coen brothers have used subtle religious and Christian symbols and this is very much the case with True Grit. The film opens with a quote from the Book of Proverbs: "The wicked flee when no man pursueth”.

The narrator then opens the film by saying "you pay for everything in this world. There is nothing free, except the grace of God”. These themes of retribution, revenge and justice are a central part of the plot but the subtle nods to divine justice and divine grace allow one to consider them in more than black and white terms. Mattie's objective to capture her father's murderer might seem a simple issue but her intentions are rather more complicated. As the film progresses we see her outer desire for justice clouded by her inward desire for vengeance. The Burwell-composed soundtrack, based on variations of the 19th century hymn On Everlasting Arms, points to the Mattie's failure to accept that sometimes we can not do everything ourselves and at times must accept that certain things are in the hands of God alone. The condition of Mattie's hand at the end of the film certainly is a symbol of this dynamic.

The second half of the opening verse from Proverbs "but the righteous are as bold as lions", is omitted, but I think it poses the central questions that True Grit raises: Are the actions of the trackers truly righteous? And is righteousness the true substance of the grit the trackers need?

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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Litany of Loreto - Gate of Heaven

The history of the covenant between God and man begins in the very first book of the Bible. After the flood, Noah is the first to receive a guarantee that the Lord will not exterminate his creation forever. But this is only the beginning of what God has in mind. He constitutes a new covenant, where Abraham is chosen to be the father of “many nations”. God proves his intentions by giving Sarah a son, even though she is past child-bearing. This son, Isaac, becomes the father of Jacob. In his younger years, Jacob has a dream where he sees a ladder reaching from earth to the skies, and he hears God’s voice telling him:

“I, the Lord, am the God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac. The ground on which you are lying I shall give to you and your descendants. Your descendants will be as plentiful as the dust on the ground; you will spread out to west and east, to north and south, and all clans on earth will bless themselves by you and your descendants” (Genesis 28:13-14).

The lives of the three patriarchs of Israel are all individual, unique stories, unique lives. But they unite in a common experience: God acts in their lives and assures them a future of prosperity. Even if they do not see the covenant fulfilled, their lives have, henceforth, an eschatological perspective. From the moment that Abram was called to leave a nomad people struggling to survive in rough conditions, this new people has become a people sustained by a vision. Their lives are defined by God’s promise, and they continue their lives with their inner eyes oriented towards a horizon designed by the Lord himself.

There is a huge distance from the fathers of the old covenant to where we are standing today. And whereas the fathers looked forward to a future of prosperity, we are looking backwards to the moment when the covenant of God was fulfilled. Our perspective is centred on the moment where God makes his giant leap towards humanity, by becoming the incarnate God. But he does so in such a human, natural way that man finds it hard to believe. The almighty chooses a young woman to become the gate of heaven, and a baby is born under poor conditions. “For the needy is not forgotten forever, not for ever does the hope of the poor come to nothing” (Psalm 10(9):18). No, the needy are not forgotten, the Lord remembers mankind by becoming a poor human being, and thereby proving his everlasting love for the lowly and humble of heart.

We look to Mary, and we realise how she has become the chosen one to unite heaven and earth. From this moment, the body of Christ grows and fills the earth as the Church spread out to west and east, to north and south. Therefore, as we meditate on the gift that God gives to, and through, Mary, we realise that we have become this gate ourselves. We are the ones who bring the good news to the world. We are the ones who continue the incarnation by the Holy Spirit. Pope Leo the Great says in his famous homily: “Christian, know your dignity!” (Sermon used in the office for Christmas day in the Church.) We are nothing less than the Gate of Heaven. Our horizon is the Son of God, our model is Mary showing us the openness to God's will in her life, just as the Church always searches to fulfill the mission that Christ has given her. Our lives are defined by a Christological vision, and our vision is nourished by the Holy Spirit, as we look forward to the moment when God the Father opens the doors for the last time, saying: “Come! Everything is now ready” (Luke 14:17).

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Monday, February 21, 2011

Litany of Loreto – Ark of the Covenant

'The holy Virgin is in truth an ark, wrought with gold both within and without, that has received the whole treasury of the sanctuary.'

These words from St. Gregory Thaumaturgus in the third century reflect an understanding of Our Lady that goes right back to the beginning of Christianity. In Luke's Gospel, there are clear parallels between Our Lady and the ark of the covenant. In the hill country of Judea, when Elizabeth heard the greeting of her cousin Mary, the babe leapt in her womb. Elizabeth exclaimed 'why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?' and Mary remained with Elizabeth for three months before returning home (Luke 1). Compare this with the account of King David and the ark (2 Samuel 6). When he manages to retrieve the ark after its capture by the Philistines, he leaps and dances before it. He says “how can the ark of the Lord come to me?” and he takes the ark to Abu Ghosh, a village in the hill country of Judea and the ark remains there for three months.

 The relationship between Our Lady and the ark is also seen in the book of Revelation:
“Then God's temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple; and there were flashes of lightning, voices, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail. And a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; she was with child” (Revelation 11:19-12:2)
To see why Our Lady should be associated with the ark, we need to consider what was actually kept within it. The ark contained three things: the tablets on which the ten commandment were written, a jar of manna from the desert, and Aaron's staff that budded (Hebrew 9:4). So whereas the ark contained the word of God inscribed on stone tablets, the bread of heaven and the staff representing the Levitical priesthood, within Our Lady's womb was the Word of God made flesh, Jesus the bread of life who is our true high priest. Until the Babylonian exile, the ark of the covenant marked the presence of God among his people. Now Our Lady has taken on this role and so it is very appropriate that we pray to her as ark of the new covenant, that she reveal to us the blessed fruit of her womb.

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Saturday, February 19, 2011

Litany of Loreto - House of Gold


In around 64 AD, the emperor Nero built himself an astoundingly lavish palace in the centre of Rome, the 'Domus Aurea' or 'House of Gold'. Although the palace was destroyed and plundered after Nero's death, legends of its magnificence have tantalised historians for centuries. Interestingly, the Litany of Loreto uses this same title - Domus Aurea - to refer to Our Lady, and I don't think it is merely co-incidental.

Rather, this title is accorded to Our Lady to draw a sharp contrast between Nero's short-lived House of Gold (destroyed in 68 AD), and Mary, whose name is continually praised, for "all generations will call [her] blessed". The self-aggrandizement of Nero's structure is further juxtaposed with the humility and "lowliness" of Mary. Moreover, Nero's building stands for corruption and decadence while Mary is immaculately conceived, and remained a pure virgin throughout her life. It is precisely Mary's incorruptibility, endurance, and purity that is thus symbolized by gold. She, unlike Nero's false 'Domus Aurea', is the one truly worthy of this title. For "unless the Lord builds the house, in vain do its builders labour" (Psalm 127:1).

Gold, of course, is also a symbol of nobility and is associated with royalty, as is fitting for the Mother of Christ the King. Above all, gold is also a symbol of faith which is tested and proved in suffering. As St Peter says: "Now for a little while you may have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold which though perishable is tested by fire, may redound to praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 1:6-7). And Our Lady, whose heart is pierced with a sword (Luke 2:35), is pre-eminent in such faith.

In 1 Kings 6:20, the Holy of Holies of Solomon's Temple is described as a perfect cube, overlaid with gold. Alluding to this in the Apocalypse of St John, the heavenly Jerusalem is also described as a perfect cube made of pure gold (Apocalypse 21:16-18). Here again, gold is a sign of purity and eternity, but what is especially significant is that both these golden places house the presence and glory of God. So, the title 'Domus Aurea' re-affirms that Mary is the temple within whom the incarnate Word dwells, and as such, she is "full of grace", and preserved from sin from the moment of her conception. Therefore, St Thomas Aquinas says that "as all in the temple was covered with gold, so was everything in the beautiful soul of Mary filled with sanctity".

Hence, in the Votive Mass of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Temple of the Lord, we say that God "made the Blessed Virgin Mary [his] Temple without compare, a house of gold adorned by the Spirit with every kind of virtue, a royal palace resplendent with the presence of the One who is Truth".

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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Litany of Loreto - Tower of Ivory

Strangely, in its modern usage the term 'ivory tower' has come to designate the esoteric and impractical ponderings of scholars who have disconnected themselves from the demands and needs of the wider world. It implies bloodless, heartless intellectual pursuits that are sterile and cold. Yet the roots of this expression are in perhaps the most passion soaked book in the Bible, the Song of Songs. In chapter seven of this wedding song the Groom is exultant, rejoicing in the beauty of his Bride. We read:

Your neck is like an ivory tower, your eyes are pools in Hesbon, by the gate of Bathrabbin, your nose is like a tower of Lebanon overlooking Damascus (Song of Songs 7:4).

The traditional allegorical reading of this book has seen the Groom as a figure of Christ. The analogy of marriage is used consistently throughout the Bible in an attempt to shed light on God's relationship with his people. Hosea, for example, is ordered to marry a prostitute as an allegory for God's relationship with Israel. The same idea appears in Ezekiel 16:8, God pledges himself to Israel when he sees that she is old enough to be loved. The author of the Book of Revelation sees the Bride of Christ - the heavenly Jerusalem - in a vision (Revelation 21:9). Paul says the love of husband for wife is like the love of Christ for the Church (Ephesians 5:25), even going so far as to call the Church the Body of Christ with the obvious allusion to the second chapter of Genesis, 'the husband cleaves to his wife and they become one flesh' (Genesis 2:24).

If the Groom in the Song of Songs has been understood to be Christ, then the Bride is the Church. Yet Mary has long been considered a symbol of the Church, so it is only natural that Christians would think of Our Lady when the Groom heaps praises upon his bride. Mary, conceiving as she did by the Holy Spirit, is at once a child, mother, and spouse of God. She remained a virgin because she belonged to God in a peculiarly intense way, unlike that of any other woman. Mary is honoured as a 'tower of ivory' precisely because she was set apart in this manner, precisely because of her unique relationshop with her Son, precisely because she showed the depth of love that only one who is without sin is able to offer.

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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Litany of Loreto - Tower of David


The scriptural basis for this Marian title is Song of Songs 4:4, ‘Your neck is the Tower of David, built on layers, hung round with a thousand bucklers, and each the shield of a hero.’ Here it is in the first place a reference to the physical beauty of a woman who it would seem had – in the eyes of her lover - a tall and elegant neck. This was made still more beautiful by the necklaces that adorned it. He continues in verse 9,‘You ravish my heart with a single link of your necklace.’ The author of the Song of Songs is comparing the neck of his lover with a military tower put up on or near Mount Zion to defend Jerusalem. It would seem, at least some of the time, that it bore the shields of those who could be called upon to defend the tower and city in time of military threat.

Two lines of development and application then seem apparent with regard to Mary. Overtly the one is based on beauty, and physical beauty at that, and the other on military prowess, albeit a defensive one. The first has tended to be spiritualised and thus been seen as a reference to Mary’s spiritual beauty, and of her being adorned with many virtues. The second is seen symbolically to refer to Mary in terms of the defence and protection she offered Jesus, from the time he was in her womb, then as a baby, and then growing up. Sometimes added to this is a sense of her life-long ‘defence’ of her virginity - though, it seems to me, that her life long defence by sinless living of her immaculate conception might be a fuller meaning. Also sometimes added is the usefulness of a theological grasp of Mary (as virgin mother of God) in defending Christological doctrines.
I think it is also worth pondering whether these two lines of reflection, beauty and military prowess, pull Mary in different, even irreconcilable, directions? Well, a graced and virtuous woman can be one who is full of valour, and strength, and concerned to defend life and promote justice. And interestingly it is, I think, this combination that accords most with the Biblical presentation of Mary. Mary, full of grace, takes on the risk of being the mother of Jesus, despite the risks to her reputation, marriage, and life, and is someone, based on her Magnificat, who was passionate about God bringing justice and freedom from oppression to God’s people. (Jesus declared a similar message: for example see Luke 4:16-22.) Something of such  a combination of beauty and valour is also reflected, I think, in the imagery of Revelation 12 which presents a woman beautiful enough to be crowned with the sun and standing on the moon, but also in conflict with Satan. The woman is often seen as a representation of Mary, as well as of Israel, and of the Church more generally.
The title ‘Tower of David’ can thus express the beauty of the grace given to Mary, seen specifically as a spirituality that equips her for spiritual warfare, and this as a combat undertaken to bring in the Kingdom of God, with its saving righteousness, justice and liberation, and to defend us from sin and Satan. This is a combat, through her intercession, that Mary still wages for us and the world we live in.

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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Litany of Loreto - Mystical Rose

Writing this on St Valentine's Day it is impossible not to recall that of all the flowers it is the rose more than any other that symbolises beauty and love. We find a number of references to roses in the Bible, all of which have been used in thinking about Mary. In the Song of Songs (as we are learning in this series, a rich source of imagery and symbolism for Mariology) the rose is referred to twice: the beloved describes herself as 'a rose of Sharon and a lily of the valleys' (Song 1:17; 2:1). The lily came to symbolise purity on account of its brilliant whiteness, the rose to symbolise love, for the rose is most often red and red means passion, desire, zeal, and love. The rose is also a complex flower, combining beauty and threat (no rose without thorns), straight and curved lines, making itself available and yet hiding its beauty in the recesses of the flower. The rose garden is the original 'rosary', or rosarium, a place for quiet contemplation and meditation.

Isaiah uses the image of the rose when talking about the power of God's re-creating Spirit. The desert will rejoice and will blossom like a rose, he says, the land that had been barren and unfruitful will flower like a rose (Isaiah 35:1,2). It is easy to see how, because of her virginity, this might be applied to Mary: the place in which we did not expect to find fruit has become fruitful by God's power.

There is a wonderful poem in chapter 24 of the Book of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) which speaks about the role of wisdom 'alongside' God in the creation of the world: 'I came forth from the mouth of the Most High', she says (24:3), and she is present everywhere, in all that is made and in every nation. She has come, by God's command, to dwell particularly in Israel (24:8), putting down her roots among God's chosen, ministering in the holy tabernacle, taking root in an honored people (24:10,12). Wisdom continues:

'I grew tall like a cedar in Lebanon, and like a cypress on the heights of Hermon. I grew tall like a palm tree in En-gedi, and like rose plants in Jericho; like a beautiful olive tree in the field, and like a plane tree I grew tall ... Like a terebinth I spread out my branches and my branches are glorious and graceful. Like a vine I caused loveliness to bud, and my blossoms became glorious and abundant fruit' (24:13-14, 16-17).

Even as a poem this is beautiful, but its associations with Wisdom and then with Mary give it an extraordinarily profound significance for Christians. These phrases, as well as other parts of Sirach 24 referring to water, and gardens, and spices, provide the antiphons for the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  For the liturgy it is she, Mary, the Mystical Rose, who is speaking in this great poem, pointing to the wonders of grace worked in her by God and to the complex beauty of His gift to her (exceptional joy, extraordinary sorrow). It is a striking recapitulation of the mystery of creation and of the human longing for a wisdom that seems  elusive: 'those who eat me will hunger for more, and those who drink me will thirst for more' (24:21). 'Do whatever he tells you', Mary/Wisdom tells us at Cana, opening our eyes to the One in whom our hunger will be satisfied and our thirst cured, the son of Mary, the fruit of the Mystical Rose, whose love is everything we could ever need or want, whose beauty holds us, and whose aroma we have become.

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Sunday, February 13, 2011

Litany of Loreto - Singular Vessel of Devotion

In certain periods of the Church's history (and the current time, I think, is probably one of them), Christians have been rather cautious about giving too much honour to the saints: after all, true worship is due to God alone (cf. Ex 20: 3-6), and veneration of the saints can sometimes look dangerously like diverting that true worship elsewhere.

This phenomenon is particularly interesting nowadays, though, when secular society appears to be fascinated with the cult of celebrity. We seem to be quite happy honouring people not even for what they have achieved but simply for who they are - for being famous. I say this is interesting because, ultimately, Christians don't honour the saints because of their achievements. We honour the saints because the Church perceives in their lives a flourishing of humanity, a conformity to the divine image in which we are all created. Such conformity is achieved not by human effort but by an openness to the Holy Spirit, by sharing in the free gift of divine life which we call grace.

It follows that of all the saints, Our Lady occupies a special place in Christian devotion. She whom the angel called 'full of grace' (Luke 1:28) was so profoundly conformed to God, the ultimate object of all our devotion, that she was chosen to bear within herself the very Word of God made Flesh. Thus  she is quite literally a singular vessel of our devotion. So it is that the Byzantine Church dares to sing so exultantly in response to the Magnificat, Mary's own song of joy:

More honourable than the Cherubim,
and incomparably more glorious than the Seraphim
Thou who inviolate didst bring forth the Word of God,
very Mother of God, Thee do we magnify!

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Saturday, February 12, 2011

Litany of Loreto - Vessel of Honour


By the "unique and unrepeatable fact" that Mary was truly the Mother of God, the Theotokos or God-bearer, she is honoured. She is the new Ark of the Covenant, the place where God chooses to rest. She was the vessel that not only carried Christ in her womb but gave him his human nature. This intimate relationship with the Word itself made flesh elevates her in the created order and amongst humanity. However to think of Mary as just some sort of passive incubation chamber for the incarnate Word would not only be false, it would also be a somewhat perverse view not only of her motherhood but of motherhood in general. We can also think of Mary as a vessel in a nautical sense. A ship carries cargo and its destination is determined by the cargo but its crew must navigate the oceans to reach port.

During our Lord's public ministry, a woman in a crowd once exclaimed "Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked!". Christ replies, some might say rather surprisingly, "Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!". In saying this Christ does not dismiss the blessedness of His mother but emphasises her faithful cooperation with God and His grace. Mary responded to God's call at the Annunciation, and throughout her life pondered upon the Word made flesh in her heart. It is for this reason that we can also call Mary a model for the Church. By following her example the Church, as Pope John Paul II said, achieves "a fruitful spiritual motherhood". The image of the Church as a ship has often been used and it is apt in this instance. If we follow the lead of the pride of the fleet, the Star of the Sea and the Lord's Vessel of Honour, we too can cross the ocean to the promised new world.

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Thursday, February 10, 2011

Litany of Loreto - Spiritual Vessel

Visiting Lourdes and other Marian shrines one is often struck by the sheer volume, and indeed, variety of the statues representing Our Lady. Some are very beautiful, others have been known to draw less favourable comments. A regular visitor to Knock as a small boy, I would always be drawn to the ‘Holy Water Mary’s’, as I called them. You may recall (perhaps with a shudder) these plastic vessels which could be filled with Holy Water. Filled to the brim, the screw-top crown didn’t always do its job and it was rather an effort to ‘get Mary home’ without ‘leaking’. I would jealously guard this precious cargo - it always seemed a bit better than the Holy Water one got in England - where, awaiting it in my bedroom was a porcelain water stoop of deplorable design. It would be fair to say that I wasn’t overly impressed by the container: it was the precious contents that mattered.

Thinking upon Our Lady, however, one is perhaps struck by the tremendous range of theological meaning the phrase ‘Spiritual Vessel’ can convey. As spiritual we mean that within, that which is not apparent to the senses but is of the soul. From the moment of her conception Mary was full of grace and preserved from all stain of Original Sin. This purity allowed within her a fullness of sanctifying grace which could never be 'leaked' or lost. This fullness of grace, foreshadowed in the scriptures, would prepare her to be a vessel not only of the Spirit but of the Word made flesh. It was in her supernatural perfections that Our Lady gained an inward beauty totally unique in human history, and as that most worthy, spiritual, vessel, became the Mother of Christ and of His Church. It was this fullness of grace that allowed her to watch her Son grow and flourish and ultimately which gave her the strength to watch Him suffer and die for us. She kept all such things and “pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:51). Finally, such was her blessed state that she was assumed into Heaven, body and soul, to be united with her Son as the Queen of Heaven.

In all these momentous occasions she never faltered in love of her Son. She cared nothing for praise or adulation but lived only to serve and to praise Him. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour” (Luke 1:46-47). In her exalted state she continues to do just this and asks nothing more than that we do the same, knowing that only God can fill and satisfy the soul which was made by Him and for Him. We sometimes feel that we are losing our ‘spiritual contents’ as we journey, but Mary shows us in the pattern of her life the example we must follow, as the preeminent member, the ‘exemplary realization’ of the Church. None can ever really begin to convey the beauty of Mary’s soul and all words fail to convey adequately that purity and sanctity, but the title ‘Spiritual Vessel’ can give us a many layered meditation, whereby we can begin to ponder upon this spiritual richness and its significance for us all. Ad Iesum per Mariam.

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Wednesday, February 09, 2011

World Youth Day 2011 - Join our group!



The brothers of the Godzdogz team will be leading a group of 50 to WYD 2011 in Madrid. We will be visiting Dominican sites on the way, with opportunities for catechesis, spiritual talks, the sacraments, and prayer.

Date: 12-22 August 2011
Cost: £550 (incl. food, transportation, accommodation, and registration)
For those aged 16-35.

We still have 8 spaces left for this Dominican Pilgrimage, so if you're interested contact wyd@english.op.org or hand on our details to someone you think may benefit from this wonderful Catholic youth event!

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Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Aquinas Colloquium, Blackfriars, Oxford

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Monday, February 07, 2011

Quodlibet 34 - The differences between Dominicans and Franciscans?

We have been asked to explain the differences between the Dominicans and Franciscans. Brother Andrew Brookes writes as follows in response to this request:

I think for the most part it is best to locate any differences in the context of what we hold in common, points which are far more substantial. Thus both orders were started in the opening years of the 13th century in southern Europe. Both are said to be friars, meaning brothers. In simple terms both were inspired by the desire to live the apostolic life in following Jesus. Thus they wanted both to live in community (in fraternity), owning things in common and having a shared prayer life, but also to go out and preach the gospel, living simply and trusting God to provide for their needs. As such they were not to be monks who traditionally stayed within a monastery, but they adapted monastic life to combine it with apostolic mission. Again, in both cases a central group of consecrated men arose but linked to this were enclosed women who prayed for the work and a wider network of lay people. (Active women religious were added to each later in their histories.) Both are Roman Catholic groups approved by the papacy and now international in distribution. Although Francis is remembered for his love of creation, this also marked Dominic and his followers who were committed to defending the goodness of all creation and also human nature against the Cathars. Both groups now undertake a wide range of apostolates.
Some differences emerge from the specific characters and lives of their respective founders. At the time of becoming a founder, Dominic was a priest and he had a focus on good, clear preaching and teaching of the Gospel. For this reason he stressed study as a means to prepare his friars for preaching and teaching that was clear, true and of a good standard. It has meant that Dominicans have since taken part also in the academic life of the church in marked ways. Francis was a lay person, eventually made a deacon, and he stressed a simple life of repentance, of compassion for outcasts, and his preaching was of a much simpler style. This and some subtle theological points have led Dominicans to be associated more with God as Truth and Franciscans with God as Love, but, in my view, far too much can be made of this and really truth and love go together in God and in any authentic Christian life. Although both Dominic and Francis both lived very poor personal lives, Franciscans are seen to place a higher value on poverty as an end in itself in following Jesus whereas Dominicans tend to see it as helping us to live simply and be free to preach and to love and to trust in God, so it is more of a means to an end, perfection consisting in love of God and neighbour.
There have sometimes been historical tensions between the groups but there are also strong links binding us together as parts of the one body of Christ.

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Litany of Loreto - Cause of our Joy

It was a Friday morning, I was late for my course, running down the stairs thinking of whether I had remembered to turn off the light in my room or not, and whether I had brought with me my books and locked the door. In the stairways I met one of the brethren. I do not know if he saw my stressed state of mind, but as I continued down the stairs with my cappa flying around his legs, he said ”may the Spirit be with you”. I started to smile as I couldn’t help thinking of Yoda, the little green man in the Star Wars films, always greeting his colleagues by saying ”may the force be with you”. Well. Yoda soon disappeared from my mind, but the words of my brother remained throughout the day. May the Spirit be with you! So much more than a wish to 'have a nice day'! I realized that the reality of being followed and upheld by God’s Holy Spirit reaches far beyond my limited thoughts. Our life is anchored in Him who holds the whole of the cosmos in his hands.

A few minutes after having received this early morning blessing, I sat around a table face to face with Anglicans, Baptists and Evangelicals, and Paul’s word of being living stones building each other up became so alive, so clear. Being united in the body of Christ, we are enjoying God’s own presence within us, as a fruit of Salvation given us in the Son. There is a Holy bond between all who have received the Lord, a bond throughout the world and across history, reaching all the way back to the first fruits of this salvation, Mary, who even before carrying the seed of God’s Messiah to the world, had been blessed and destined to bring forth the reason of our everlasting joy. It seems very simple: Jesus, our Lord, is our joy, Mary is the Mother of our Lord, and so Mary is 'cause of our joy'.

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Sunday, February 06, 2011

Litany of Loreto - Seat of Wisdom

Wisdom is more active than all active things; and reaches everywhere, by reason of her purity. For she is a vapour of the power of God, and a certain pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty God: and therefore no defiled thing comes into her (Wisdom 7:24-25).

The Virgin Orans at St. Sophia Cathedral, Kiev
For centuries Christians have prayed to Our Lady that they might be guided in wisdom. At Blackfriars, we'll often begin meetings with the prayer: 'Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, pray for us.' There is a very special relationship between Our Lady and wisdom. In the Old Testament, wisdom is personified as a female figure who brings God's plans to perfection. Whilst the New Testament never applied these texts directly to Mary herself, early Christians began to ask who this figure was. One possibility was to identify this figure with Christ himself, but this was slightly problematic, not only because wisdom is a female figure, but also because the Old Testament described wisdom as a mother who had been created (Sirach 24). So who was this person, so near to God without being God, associated with him in the role of mother of the whole world, this female figure that fulfils His plans to perfection? It was the analogy between this image and that of the woman in Revelation 12 clothed with the sun and crowned with twelve stars, that led Christians to apply the wisdom texts to Mary.

Mary cannot be said to be wisdom without qualification. Only Christ is the eternal uncreated wisdom of God, and only the Church made perfect at the end of time, is to be the final created realisation of this divine wisdom. But Mary is the one who was predestined to be the first created realisation of wisdom. For creation was only able to fully engage with the wisdom of God when Mary in her total receptivity to the divine will, allowed herself to be that seat in which wisdom would makes its home.

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Saturday, February 05, 2011

Litany of Loreto - Mirror of Justice

After a series of titles addressing Mary as Mother and Virgin comes a series of thirteen, Mirror of justice, Seat of wisdom, Cause of our joy, Spiritual vessel, Vessel of honour, Singular vessel of devotion, Mystical rose, Tower of David, Tower of ivory, House of gold, Ark of the covenant, Gate of heaven, and Morning star. Some of these are clearly found in the Old Testament whereas the origin of others is obscure, but it has been argued that they all belong in Jewish Wisdom literature and in the mystical and theological ideas associated with the Temple in Jerusalem. Mary is being acknowledged as the place of the presence of God, more specifically as 'Wisdom', the consort or companion of God in the creation and government of the world. The English biblical scholar and proponent of 'Temple theology', Margaret Barker, says that these titles all originate in the Wisdom tradition, both the texts accepted by the Church as canonical scripture and in other Jewish writings that were preserved only by the Church, indicating their importance to Christians. She argues that they come from a rich tradition of spiritual and theological thinking centred on 'the Lady' of Solomon's Temple, and that this much older tradition was later used by Christians - when exactly we don't know - and applied by them to the Mother of the Lord in what has become the Litany of Loreto. (See Margaret Barker, 'The Images of Mary in the Litany of Loreto', published in Usus Antiquior 1 (2010) pages 110-31, and available here.)

On the title 'Mirror of Justice', Barker writes as follows:

"In the Litany of Loreto, only one title, Mirror of Justice, speculum iustitiae, clearly resembles a title in the Wisdom Literature. In the Wisdom of Solomon 7.26 she is described as the spotless mirror of the power or Glory of God, speculum . . . Dei maiestatis. The Greek text here has the spotless mirror of the ἐνέργεια of God, the ‘working’ of God, and there is no Hebrew. This line is, however, one of a triplet in the Hebrew style, suggesting a Hebrew cultural context at the very least: she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, an image of his goodness. Why is Mary the mirror of iustitia? The Vulgate uses this word to render the Hebrew şedaqah, and the Greek δικαιοσúνη, both of which mean ‘righteousness’, and so this is perhaps a better way to understand the word. Now righteousness, in its Hebrew context, describes exactly the role of Wisdom. Righteousness was the process that brought peace, šalom, and Wisdom joined all things together, held them in harmony, ἁρμόζουσα (LXX Proverbs 8.30). ‘Mirror of Righteousness’, the One who shows how God works to bring peace, fits well with the triplet in Wisdom 7.26: reflection of eternal light, mirror of the working of God, image of his goodness. Mary as the speculum iustitiae links her to Wisdom" (p.113).

The Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) teaches us that God's righteousness involves a radical re-creation of the order of this world. This re-creation is underway in the womb of Mary as she carries the Word of the Eternal Father. Mary's holiness, the work of God's grace preparing her to be the bearer of the Sun of Justice, means that we can fittingly call her the 'mirror of justice', the clearest possible reflection of divine wisdom and righteousness because she is closest to that wisdom and righteousness.

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Thursday, February 03, 2011

Artefacts from the Provincial Archives





The Province's website now has a new page with a digital exhibition of some interesting items from the Provincial Archives. A commentary on the items has been provided by fr. Neil Ferguson OP, the Provincial Archivist. Among the artefacts on display is a 14th-century English book of collected works by St Thomas Aquinas including his disputed questions On Evil (De Malo). To visit the page, click on this link.

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Litany of Loreto - Virgin ...


The title ‘virgin’ introduces a series of titles under which Mary is invoked in the Litany of Loreto. More specifically the words ‘Virgin most …’ identify Mary as prudent, venerable, renowned, powerful, merciful, and faithful, all in the fullest degree.
Why these qualities? The first and last, prudence end faithfulness, point to virtues that help sustain a life dedicated to God, such as Mary had. Those in-between, point rather to the power of her intercession in prayer, something seen as fruitful because of her dedication to and intimacy with God. By her faith-filled and efficacious intercession she is closely linked with the power and mercy of God. It is all this that means she is renowned and venerable. There is perhaps a certain irony here: Mary is recorded as being humble in the Bible (Lk 1:29). However, it is this humility and openness to God, and a transparency that goes with it, that means that God can fill her with his life in a way that has been recognised as profound. Indeed all generations do call her blessed! (Lk 1:48).
Interestingly, many of the preceding titles in the litany under which Mary is invoked as mother - pure, chaste, and especially inviolate and undefiled - also point to aspects of her virginity, thus establishing that her motherhood, both physical and spiritual, flows from and is rooted in her virginity.

Whatever our sexual history and whatever our vocational calling, we are called to a life of dedication to God, and this lies at the spiritual heart of virginity. Let us then look to Mary and ask her to help us cultivate the virtues here linked with her. Dedicating ourselves to God, we also can be so overshadowed by the Holy Spirit (cf Lk 1: 35) that we become spiritual mothers and fathers, forming people spiritually, whether or not we are or become physical parents. Thus we can be amiable, admirable, and give good counsel – to cite other qualities of Mary named in these sections of the litany.

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Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Candlemas - Light and Glory

The Presentation of the Lord

It has been remarked that the opening chapters of St Luke's Gospel are like a musical, where at high points people spontaneously sing canticles! This observation is rather accurate, but it is noteworthy that the songs are introduced whenever heaven and earth meet, when the presence of God acting in salvation history is made especially manifest. And the composer and conductor of this musical outburst is none other than the Holy Spirit, who in each occasion (except in the case of Mary, for she is already full of grace) fills Zechariah and Simeon, and inspires them to break into song. In today's feast, we recall the event that occasioned the last of these songs, thus bringing to a close the Advent and Christmas scenes of the first Act, as it were, of Luke's Gospel.

In each of these incidents, where Old and New Testaments worlds meet, St Luke is showing the fulfillment of God's promise to his chosen people, Israel, in the person of his Son, Jesus. He is the Messiah, the longed-for redeemer and leader of Israel. But it is also significant to note St Luke's warmth towards Jewish laws, customs and people. His portrayal of Simeon makes clear that he was a God-fearing and pious Jew, who was filled with the Holy Spirit. And this same Spirit who acted in the salvation history of Israel, continues to work in the salvation history of the nascent Church, as we see in Acts, which is St Luke's sequel to his Gospel. Therefore, although Luke himself does not write it, he expresses in his Gospel what St John records the Lord as saying: "Salvation is from the Jews" (Jn 4:22). Thus, the Messiah comes from the Jewish people, and so, as Simeon says, he is "for glory to [God's] people Israel" (Lk 2:32b).

But there has also been a development in Messianic theology between the song of Zechariah (the 'Benedictus') and the song of Simeon (the 'Nunc Dimittis'). While Zechariah speaks exclusively of the redemption of Israel, and the salvation of the House of David (see Lk 1:68-29), Simeon includes the fact that God has prepared his salvation for "all peoples", and that the Christ is "a light for revelation to the Gentiles". For the Messiah did not just come to deliver the Jews, but to deliver all humankind. Because we are all God's people, each lovingly created and held in being by him. And it is precisely because Jesus saves all people that we can say he is the glory of Israel. Because in his person he perfects the mission of God's chosen people, which is to be a sign of God's presence and saving mercy in the universe.

In fact, a sign of this universal mission of the Jews was indicated by the menorah, the eternal lamp that burnt in the Temple. Interestingly, both Zechariah and Simeon's songs take place in the Temple, but only in Simeon's case is Christ physically present. Thus St Luke portrays Christ as the physical embodiment of what the menorah symbolized: He is the true Light that enlightens all nations. Moreover, Christ is called the glory of Israel. Locating this within the Temple, St Luke seems to have the shekinah in mind. In Jewish understanding this was the dwelling place of God's glory or his divine presence, which was manifest above the Tabernacle in the Holy of Holies of the Temple. Hence, Christ is the incarnation of God's glory, the living sign of God's presence among his people. Therefore Christ himself is the Temple (see John 2:19) because he is everything the Temple stood for, and was directed towards: namely the place where heaven and earth meet, and for the salvation of God's people. As Simeon said, Jesus is God's salvation whom he has seen with his own eyes.

We too, as Christians, have seen Christ with our own eyes, present in the Eucharist, and in the Temple of our bodies. Thus, we are part of the salvation that comes from the Jews. On this holy feast day, let us recall that "we too are part of the ageless pilgrimage of God’s people through history. In the footsteps of the prophets, the apostles and the saints, we are called to walk with the Lord, to carry on his mission, to bear witness to the Gospel of God’s universal love and mercy" (Benedict XVI). In short, we are called to bear Christ's light to the world.

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Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Litany of Loreto - Mother ...


Last year, as part of our study programme here at Blackfriars, I attended a series of lectures on psychology and its intersections with theology. I was surprised to discover that psychology had preserved a theory of 'original sin', expressed under a number of different guises, during that period in the twentieth century when many theologians became reluctant to endorse the teaching.

Psychologists such as Freud, Jung, and Klein argued in favour of a link between the experiences of early childhood and the formation of unconscious aspects of the mind which can affect an individual's adult behaviour without them necessarily being aware of it. If correct, this theory has some interesting implications for the way we think about original sin which, as Herbert McCabe OP puts it, is 'sin that has infected us from our origins'.

Traditionally original sin has been understood as a defect in human nature that has been handed on from generation to generation. Sometimes it has even been associated with our biology but always with our solidarity with each other as members of the same 'race'. However, in the wake of Darwin's theory of evolution attempts have been made to complement this view, looking not just at our birth into the human race but with an added emphasis on the process after birth in which an individual comes to full personhood. If we are to become the person we were made to be, we must be immersed in loving relationships. The sad fact is that we are born into a world which starves us of this love and stunts our development. In a sense we are crippled from our origins by a lack of love, and this, so the argument goes, is the root of all evil that we call original sin.

Mary, of course, was protected from sin from her conception. She was free from original sin. This was so she could be a fitting ark for the new covenant. Yet Mary remained an 'ark' for Jesus for longer than the nine months that he was in her womb. She provided the loving context in which his human nature matured and he became the Man that God willed him to be. In the image of Mary and the child Jesus, then, we see the ideal human community. We see a loving relationship that allows both Mary and Jesus to become what they were meant to be. Through Christ's death and resurrection we can now enter into this community, becoming members of Christ, with Mary as our Mother, in order that we might reach our final end in God that is our beatitude.

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