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3 Shirt of Flame. A Year With Saint Therese of Lisieux

Heather King, Bewster, Massachusetts, Paraclete Press, 2011.

978-1-55725-808-3

 

Imagine you’re commissioning a book in which an author should relate their experiences of seeing their life and spirituality in terms of the biography and beliefs of a French late-nineteenth century nun. Would you think of a middle-aged Californian woman, ex-alcoholic, former-lawyer and divorcee?  I wouldn’t have done: and this is the first miracle of this valuable book. Many think that the fraught, unusual life of such a person as Thérèse of Lisièux (1873-1897; sanctified in 1925) – filled with psychosomatic sickness, intensely neurotic, cloistered and non-this-worldly – would have little relevance for people today, particularly someone with the profile outlined above; how wrong we all would be. I came across an interesting excerpt of Shirt of Flame on the Word on Fire site, and bought the book on the strength of it; I didn’t regret it. The title comes from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.

The twelve sections (one for each month, but the monthly arrangement of the chapters is very “loose fit”) each concern a stage in Therese’s life (based on her posthumously-published autobiography Story Of A Soul) and her physical/emotional and spiritual experiences. Following that, Heather King moves on to talk about her own experiences and spiritual life. The chapters are: Early Loss (On Facing Ancient Grievances), The Confluence of Will and Grace (On Illness and Healing [Therese died of tuberculosis; King has had cancer]), Therese’s Second Conversion (On Learning to Serve), The Papal Visit [Thérèse’s visit to Leo XIII; King is a convert to Roman Catholicism]), Poverty, Chastity, Obedience (On Radical Social Conscience), The Convent (On Shedding Our Illusions), The Little Way (On the Martyrdom of Everyday Life), Aridity (On Praying Without Ceasing), The Long, Slow Decline of Therese’s Father (On Being Stripped Down), The Story of a Soul (On Offering Up Our Work), My Vocation is Love (On Letting Our Flame Burn Hot), and The Divine Elevator (On Facing Death With Joy). Each chapter ends with short prayers

Heather King (whose own experiences and insights were more fascinating to me than Therese’s, which are widely known) time and again testifies to the heavy cost of loving and following Christ – certainly, when seen against this-worldly values and aspirations – and she tells us more than a little of the drunks and vagrants who have enriched her world. Few writers, surely, have tried empathetically to understand the emotions of the paedophile priests (“I could imagine humans so hungry for love, so enchanted by innocence or beauty or the very mystery of human flesh, that they crossed a line that should never, ever be crossed” (p. 98). Let King speak for herself:

“The scandal of Christ is that to have a relationship with him means to share in his suffering” (p. xvi).

“I didn’t mind not having a lot of money. I didn’t mind … having no particular support, validation, encouragement, or companionship. … What I did mind was the sense that my life was to bear no fruit at all.” (p. xx).

“I’d never considered that not having received compliments might have been a gift”. (p. 7).

“I may not have entered a convent, but I had found much healing in a fellowship of brother and sister alcoholics who were trying to stay sober.” (p. 19).

“I’m talking about the essential friendlessness of the human condition.” (p. 36).

“[In our culture] We will suffer from a fatal reduction of desire.” (p. 39) …

… “We can’t afford the reduction of desire. To refuse to ask is to think we know the plan. To reduce our desire is to reduce God.” (p. 45).

[Prayer:] “Maybe the question isn’t so much ‘when will I see Your face?’ Maybe the question is ‘When will I sit still long enough to see Your face everywhere?’”. (p. 55).

“[Thérèse ] never had to get up every morning, as millions of ‘ordinary’ people have to do, and go to a job she hated. She never had to sleep with a man she’d come to loathe and fear, as many women do in order to protect their children.” (p. 70).

“The Church had taken me in when no one else would have me.” (p. 85).

“Mass was to participate in the kingdom of God regardless of any particular emotion I felt, thought I had, or action I performed.” (p. 88).

“[Prayer:] When everything I do turns to ashes, help me to remember to turn to you”. (p. 103).

“We might be conflicted about the work we do: wondering whether we’re serving God, wondering whether we’re serving ourselves.” (p. 107).

“To dare to believe that we are truly loved, not for anything we have accomplished, earned, produced, learned, achieved, or sacrificed for, but simply for existing is a reality that can hardly be borne.2 (p. 127).

“We are called to hold the unbearable tension between two kinds of fire: the fire of our self-will and the fire of God’s purifying love.” (p. 135).

February 2012

 

 

2 Unapologetic. Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense

Frances Spufford, London, Faber & Faber, 2012,

ISBN 978-0-571-22522-4   224 pp.

 

Wow! I said to my wife: I’ve read many, many books about Christianity, but not one quite like this. I suppose it’s particularly the … er … “contemporary” language, with occasionally a bar-stool-haranguing writing style (actually, it was written in a coffee shop, not a pub); I find myself imagining a future PhD: The Use of the F-Word in Early-21st Century Theological Discourse With Special Reference to Frances Spufford. (Actually, it’s a few commas I’d add, as with many contemporary books, not words I’d remove).

The book starts with pages which detail exactly how un-cool Christianity is among … well, in the present materialist-dominated Establishment/media culture. Such a start, the refusal to deny reality, is good; but this does mean that, for all his refusal to apologise (seen in the title), the book assumes a little of the materialist world-view/value system, and so is not quite as defence-free as it claims. Everyone inside Christianity can be situated somewhere on an unbroken spectrum that has, at one end, the most “liberal” or revisionist (they only have post-Christianity beyond them), and, at the other, the most “traditionalist” or (some would say “conservative”) Christianity. Where, exactly, is this book to be put? Several times, it strikes out with a very “liberal” position, then edges its way back slowly to something like Christian orthodoxy (as in criticisms of C. S. Lewis’s ideas, Lewis not being mentioned in the second (p. 154, 159). While the book does seem to be affecting with-it coolness, the author is definitely not one of those trendy I’m-one-of-you-really “liberal” types, whose books are rarely worth reviewing – yet he does uncritically accept some of the anti-theist’s most beloved nostrums, such as evolutionism, and the “obvious” wickedness of historical Christians (the – surely discredited – idea  that the Crusades, and Inquisition, were purely-Christian, purely-evil; does anyone really still believe that the Holocaust can be explained simply as Christianity behaving badly – has he not read Weikart?).  The materialists seem to have managed, so often, to force him to fight on ground that they have chosen; but at times he flies firmly in the face of “popular” (secular-materialist) ideas, deliciously describing John Lennon’s Imagine as the “My Little Pony of philosophical statements” (p. 12), and exposing the non-canonical “gospels” (much beloved by Christian revisionists) for the feeble stuff they are (p. 154-5). He is refreshingly explicit about the absence of God, and the normal, depressing, experience of God’s silence, but, as I’ve suggested, he majors on Christians’ moral failings, now and in the past (near the end of the book ,  he lists the different (bad) things different sectors of the Christian church do and don’t do, and it’s clear which side of the list he puts things in (funny, I thought that supporting the biggest cause of the destruction of human life in all history – the abortion industry – should certainly be among the bad things, if slavery and the Holocaust (small by comparison) are too).

Spufford says he is very much a this-worldly Christian (p. 165); several things can be meant here. I’ve suggested elsewhere that so much in Christianity depends on maintaining a balance between opposites, or seeming-opposites, keeping different things in tension. One is between a this-worldly concern, and a next-worldly concern; too much of either puts everything out of balance. A faith which is totally this worldly is effectively post-Christian (God, the Church, and the Bible are all purely-human constructions), as is that which is totally-other worldly (these polarities are seen in the concerns, or over-emphases, of Early Christian heresies). Here, the weight is on the former, but not, as far as one can see, disastrously so. This-worldy Christians have to say precisely how being a Christian will make real changes to one in the here-and-now (Christian preachers in the high street get few takers, and little interest, because passers-by suspect that if they did “join your religion”, they’d still have to face the daily grind, rising prices, unemployment, the same struggle, with no miraculous help (as Spufford has affirmed). Forgiveness? From what?). (Totally-other-worldly Christians face other questions, or should do).

The re-telling of Jesus’s life and death (I’ve avoided saying “story”; there’s too much use of the word “story” in religious writings, these days – it’s time it got rested, like “myth”) is very refreshing (Chapter 5), and his account of the Christian sacrament, the communion (pp. 199-201), is exceptionally good (and I’ve read a few). I’d love to argue with him about what might be called his “problem of pain” chapter (‘The Crack In Everything’, Ch. 2). Is it so difficult to recognise that the world/people/animals/nature that we have now is very much not that which God created, and that God may not cause all to happen/be, that happens/is? – and that there might be good reasons for God’s standing back, absenting himself ? Again, he seems to have allowed himself to be forced onto the militant atheist’s chosen ground. He distances himself somewhat from any idea of God’s judgement, and uses the “few nutters” argument, as I call it, to assure us that no one now believes in Hell (the tactic goes like this: select an aspect of orthodox Christianity which you think ought not to be true/real; say ‘today, only a few nutters believe xyz, the majority, we, do not’ (see p. 181-2)). He doesn’t use the normal term for this (universalism), but seems close to believing it. A brief examination shows that universalism is actually a very cruel doctrine. The thing about belief in objective truth is that society, the media, fashion, and power, are all irrelevant. If one person believes a truth – say, a traditional Christian idea – if it is indeed true, it makes no difference if every other Christian on earth doesn’t believe it in; billions count for nothing.

Towards the end of the book, he says he is a socialist (p. 216). Now, I’m no Conservative (or Lib/Dem), but I can’t see (despite the supposed Nonconformist origins of the British Labour Party) how anyone who believes in the ineluctable human tendency to do wrong (our Post-Lapsarian state, to use the theological term; Spufford uses another term; it does include the f- word), as this author clearly does, can become a socialist, though that is not a subject I claim any expertise regarding); however, he does say that a Christian can’t be a utopian (p. 219), which is good to hear.  He notes, accurately, that the Church, historically, has a habit of ‘hovering up’ the ideas/science of particular times, as with the metaphysics of Aristotle and the cosmology of Ptolemy, in the Middle Ages (p. 194, note) – yes, and another excellent example, which  he misses, is the Church’s rapid acceptance of evolutionism in the early-20th century. (Will we never learn? Will we never realise that authentic-Judeo/Christian ideas are necessary and sufficient?).

It’s useful to read his distinction between Christianity and legalist religions (such as Judaism and Islam, orthodoxic as opposed to orthopraxic (p. 44-5)): but Christianity does not have no rules, shalt, shalt not; this error leads Spufford to use the Silence-of-The-New-Testament argument: ‘if Jesus never mentioned xyz, it must be OK to do it’ (carry on, folks, with whatever you were doing …)(p. 191). Perhaps that’s the lowest point of the book – but there are many highs., eg. the stylish debunking of Christopher Hitchens’s claim that Martin Luther King Jr. was not a genuine Christian (p. 191, note).

Actually, there’s one f- word that this author doesn’t use (unless I’ve missed it), a word beginning F U N D … , which also means virtually anything/nothing, now; all things considered, if I had to choose between the use of these two words, I’d follow Spufford.

 

July 2013

1 God, Gays and the Church. Human Sexuality and Experience in ChristianThinking,

Lisa Nolland, Chris Sugden and Sarah Finch, eds., God, Gays and the Church. Human Sexuality and Experience in ChristianThinking, London, The Latimer Trust, 2008. 978-0-946307-93-7

The following is a review added to the Amazon.com site in early April 2010, largely in response to a review already present there. This version has been slightly expanded.

This book was produced in response to debates in the Church of England’s General Synod, on 28 February 2007, which it reports on. It is relevant, though, to any examination of the relationship between homosexuality and Christianity, and other sexual issues.

It looks at the whole relationship of the Anglican leadership to the powerful gay lobby, and presents several very sobering accounts of the experiences of gay people, men and women, who have sought to exit homosexual lifestyles (e.g. the account of Dr Ronald G. Lee (p. 59), which deserves to be read at least twice).

Central to the Synod debates, it shows, was an obvious and unsubtle work of engineering, by the leadership, which made sure that the orthodox viewpoint (and the experiences of post-gays, as mentioned above) were marginalised and largely silenced.

Also – and this is very important, and rarely realised – it showed the thoroughly this-worldly (i.e. secular) values by which the debates – of a Christian Church! – were carefully framed by the revisionists (p. 21-2), and the (related) way in which a person’s “experience” (i.e. nature) is, in this view, to be considered sovereign – in defiance of the whole of Christian tradition, belief, thought, and theology.

Also, the book sought to differentiate between the (much-vaunted) “committed, faithful, loving, and stable” relationships and actual sexual exclusivity (p. 11). Contributions by Lisa Nolland (one of the editors) shows how the business of marriage-like relationships between two men (or two women) are just the start, as the ménages of polyamorists, zoos, and consenting paedophiles, are well on the horizon.

The orthodox Christian answer to the incursions of the gay lobby above all (it seems to me) makes the crucial distinction between so-called “liberalism” and authentic freeing (again, see Lee, and several others (pp. 25-59)); it exposes the total falsity of what has been called “the three myths about homosexuality” (it is inherent, it is not changeable, and its is “natural” (physiologically safe)).

Above all, the Christian faith offers real freedom – which is not to be found in the gay lifestyle or from the gay lobby – or by pandering to physical appetites or this-worldly desires. We have moved on since 2007.  The time of hysterical name-calling (“Homophobe!”) is over. Now it is the time real facts, objective evidence, truth – and real liberation. The only people who could be offended by this book (as one of the Amazon reviewers was) are those determined that the prisoner’s chains may never be broken, that the doors of their jails remain ever shut.