Ave, gratia plena!

At our pontifical Mass this morning for today’s Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, the Abbot referred to the Holy Father’s words before leading the recitation of the Angelus at Cofton Park in September. Pope Benedict noted that Blessed John Henry Newman’s priestly life was one of filial devotion to Mary, and then quoted one of Newman’s sermons:

Who can estimate the holiness and perfection of her, who was chosen to be the Mother of Christ? What must have been her gifts, who was chosen to be the only near earthly relative of the Son of God, the only one whom He was bound by nature to revere and look up to; the one appointed to train and educate Him, to instruct Him day by day, as He grew in wisdom and in stature?”

Our Lady’s Immaculate Conception – that is, her being so full of grace from the very beginning of her life that she was preserved from any sin in virtue of the divine Son she was to bear – did not make her any less human or more “divine” than we are. Nevertheless, she is placed higher than us by God as one whose faith was unbroken to the point that the grace of her Son could work unobstructed in her. As Bl John Henry notes, she was the only earthly near relative of the incarnate Word, indeed Christ’s mother. As her son in the flesh Jesus was bound by the divine law, in particular the fourth commandment, to honour and obey her.

God made man, Jesus Christ, was bound by divine law to obey a human person! Indeed Mary is blessed among women, among us all. No wonder Christians have from earliest times called upon her intercession in the confidence that, subject to the divine will, Christ can refuse her nothing.

But this feast reveals as much about us as about Mary. It reveals the power of faith, and the effects of grace that such faith unlocks. Nothing is beneath God in his work of saving us, even to taking on a human body and all the limitations that entails, and of subjecting himself in his human life to one of his creatures. God subject to man! Even to the Cross. No wonder St Paul could acknowledge that this was “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23). But of course, faith knows as does St Paul that “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Cor 1:25).

So we are called to abandon ourselves to the foolishness of God, whose love for us knows no bounds, and who will reward true faith with grace beyond our logic to conceive, and make of us bearers of Christ to the world. In this, may the Blessed Virgin Mary ever be our guide and our intercessor.

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art though among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus. (Luke 1:28)

An Advent programme

Tomorrow I am off to Cologne for a few days seeing sights and enjoying a friend’s company. So quietness will reign here a few days. But Advent is upon us and it seems a lax thing not to acknowledge it.

The character of Advent can be a subject for debate. I have heard some adamantly declare that Advent is not a time of penance like Lent, and should not be seen as a sort of “little Lent”. Lent prepares us for the commemoration of the Passion and Death of Jesus, and so is rightly marked by works of penance in preparation for it. Advent is, some argue, rather a time of preparation for the joyful feast of the Nativity of Jesus and so any penitential character is out of place.

Anyone who listens to the readings of Advent cannot but notice that not only are we looking back to the Nativity and Jesus’ first coming, we are looking forward to his second coming, and to judgment. Who among us is ready to be judged by the Lord? Are we ready for him to come like a thief in the night and catch us unawares, in the full flush of our sin and sloth?

The symbols are there if we look – the purple of penance and preparation and the quietened organ. It was once a universal Christian practice to fast in Advent, and the Orthodox and eastern-rite Catholics still do. Advent seems to cry out for prayer, fasting and almsgiving as the ideal preparation for both Christmas and judgment. It would be good if the witness of fasting and penance in Advent were revived more zealously in the western Church, if only to counteract the secular tendency in this period to see preparation for Christmas as being nothing more than extra shopping and increased consumption. So many compete, it seems, to buy a present that exceeds last year’s, as though extravagance and a hefty price tag were the true marks of love. How incongruous when we are celebrating, or meant to be, the birth of our Saviour into relative poverty and lowliness.

So while it would be a great gift to the Church and to the world if we were all to start renewing the practice of penance in Advent, it would be as great a gift if we were to make sure we did not invest it with the showiness and excess that marks the secular pre-Christmas. Rather, maybe we should follow Blessed John Henry Newman’s Short Road to Perfection. It is not an arduous journey he proposes. Instead he encourages us to make the daily round of our lives perfect by being conscientious, and by keeping our minds more surely fixed on God. If we follow this Short Road we will find ourselves indeed readier for Christmas, and readier for judgment.

It is the saying of holy men that, if we wish to be perfect, we have nothing more to do than to perform the ordinary duties of the day well. A short road to perfection—short, not because easy, but because pertinent and intelligible. There are no short ways to perfection, but there are sure ones.

….

We must bear in mind what is meant by perfection. It does not mean any extraordinary service, anything out of the way, or especially heroic—not all have the opportunity of heroic acts, of sufferings—but it means what the word perfection ordinarily means. By perfect we mean that which has no flaw in it, that which is complete, that which is consistent, that which is sound—we mean the opposite to imperfect. As we know well what imperfection in religious service means, we know by the contrast what is meant by perfection.

He, then, is perfect who does the work of the day perfectly, and we need not go beyond this to seek for perfection. You need not go out of the round of the day.

I insist on this because I think it will simplify our views, and fix our exertions on a definite aim. If you ask me what you are to do in order to be perfect, I say, first—Do not lie in bed beyond the due time of rising; give your first thoughts to God; make a good visit to the Blessed Sacrament; say the Angelus devoutly; eat and drink to God’s glory; say the Rosary well; be recollected; keep out bad thoughts; make your evening meditation well; examine yourself daily; go to bed in good time, and you are already perfect.

September 27, 1856, Meditations and Devotions.

Newman on doubt

Tomorrow marks the first time we shall keep the memoria of Blessed John Henry Newman. The date chosen marks not his death, as is usual, but his conversion to Roman Catholicism. The Church has chosen to include a passage from his classic spiritual autobiography, Apologia pro vita sua, as the second reading for Matins/the Office of Readings.

In it Newman talks of the seamless transition he experienced in “swimming the Tiber”. With all the social and personal upheaval and even distress his conversion caused him, he felt that settling at last in the bosom of the Church was like coming into harbour after sailing stormy seas. More importantly, he teaches that difficulties in belief do not necessarily lead to doubts. In fact, to believe what is difficult is at the heart of the act of faith: there is no virtue to accepting the obvious. The passage is worth reading in full (see my post a few days back for a link to the texts for the memoria), but this following excerpt stands out for me:

I am far of course from denying that every article of the Christian Creed, whether as held by Catholics or by Protestants, is beset with intellectual difficulties; and it is simple fact, that, for myself, I cannot answer those difficulties. Many persons are very sensitive of the difficulties of Religion; I am as sensitive of them as any one; but I have never been able to see a connexion between apprehending those difficulties, however keenly, and multiplying them to any extent, and on the other hand doubting the doctrines to which they are attached.

Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt, as I understand the subject; difficulty and doubt are incommensurate. There of course may be difficulties in the evidence; but I am speaking of difficulties intrinsic to the doctrines themselves, or to their relations with each other. A man may be annoyed that he cannot work out a mathematical problem, of which the answer is or is not given to him, without doubting that it admits of an answer, or that a certain particular answer is the true one. Of all points of faith, the being of a God is, to my own apprehension, encompassed with most difficulty, and yet borne in upon our minds with most power.

If we can have faith in the great unprovable, God himself, all other difficulties fade in comparison.

Bl John Henry Newman – pray for us.

Upcoming memorial of Bl John Henry Newman

Next Saturday, 9 October, will be the first time that we will celebrate the memoria of Bl John Henry Newman. For those who wish to plan ahead, the Proper for the Divine Office and Mass can be found at this website. The Collect is particularly evocative given the world in which we live:

O God, who bestowed on the Priest Blessed John Henry Newman
the grace to follow your kindly light and find peace in your Church;
graciously grant that, through his intercession and example,
we may be led out of shadows and images
into the fulness of your truth.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.