Recently, after Mass, someone articulated some spiritual difficulties, in particular, why doesn’t God do anything when we pray for those migrants in Calais?

It’s that old chestnut, or rather two chestnuts thrown into the blender to make one sludge of bewilderment: why does God not always answer our prayers; and why do bad things happen to the innocent? The answer to both, of course, is sin – human sin, to make it perfectly clear.

However, that is not by itself a satisfying answer to most. Books have been written addressing this real problem in Christians’ spiritual lives, and they often do it very well, and better than I could.

Yet we could still approach the problem from one angle at least.

Continue reading “Why?”

More than one kind of fasting – St Francis de Sales

With Ash Wednesday now passing for another year and our Lenten observance upon us, a few wise and perhaps not often seen words from St Francis de Sales might be helpful as we launch ourselves into the penitential discipline of Lent. In this sermon, a long one, he teaches on fasting. This excerpt bears a little reflection form us all:

To treat of fasting and of what is required to fast well, we must, at the start, understand that of itself fasting is not a virtue. The good and the bad, as well as Christians and pagans, observe it. The ancient philosophers observed it and recommended it. They were not virtuous for that reason, nor did they practice virtue in fasting. Oh, no, fasting is a virtue only when it is accompanied by conditions which render it pleasing to God. Thus it happens that it profits some and not others, because it is not undertaken by all in the same manner… We know very well that it is not enough to fast exteriorly if we do not also fast interiorly and if we do not accompany the fast of the body with that of the spirit…

We must fast with our whole heart, that is to say, willingly, wholeheartedly, universally and entirely. If I recount to you St. Bernard’s words regarding fasting, you will know not only why it is instituted but also how it ought to be kept.

He says that fasting was instituted by Our Lord as a remedy for our mouth, for our gourmandizing, and for our gluttony. Since sin entered the world through the mouth, the mouth must do penance by being deprived of foods prohibited and forbidden by the Church, abstaining from them for the space of forty days. But this glorious saint adds that, as it is not our mouth alone which has sinned, but also all our other senses, our fast must be general and entire, that is, all the members of our body must fast. For if we have offended God through the eyes, through the ears, through the tongue, and through our other senses, why should we not make them fast as well? And not only must we make the bodily senses fast, but also the soul’s powers and passions — yes, even the understanding, the memory, and the will, since we have sinned through both body and spirit.

Ash Wednesday, 1622

So let us think beyond food for our fasting self-denial. What is some little good that we can deny each of our senses? Such a universal fast is not only a noble offering to the Lord, but a way of taming all our senses, so easily and regularly indulged in this modern world. With our senses more tame, maybe our behaviour might become less selfish and our treatment of others more Christian.

A lot to hope for, perhaps? Well, if Confucius got anything right it was this: a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.

And it can be a small one.

If you want a more detailed Lenten rule, you might want to read Dom Mark’s Lenten programme: it is practical, reasonable and traditional.


Syria – the tangled web

It is quite possible that a large number of Catholics do not know that today is a day of prayer and fasting for the intention of peace in Syria, the Middle East and the world. Pope Francis called for this universal day of prayer and penance (for he has invited people of all faiths and none, across the world, to join the Church in this initiative) last Sunday at the end of his Angelus address. To be fair, notice of less than a week allowed no time for parish bulletins to promote it. However there is the internet, and parishes, newspapers, journals, dioceses and religious orders all have websites they could use to spread the word. Many also have Twitter and Facebook accounts that could spread the word even more quickly.

Sadly the only real noise about it I have heard is from traditionally-minded Catholics. Pope Francis’ liberal fanclub have been strangely unenthusiastic about it. Perhaps the idea of Pope Francis being papal is too confronting for them? Or maybe “fasting” is far too pre-conciliar for them? Certainly even in my own neck of the woods there has been silence on it.

So the burden will probably rest largely on the shoulders of Catholics of a traditional colouring, who take popes seriously even when not to their taste or ideals. I imagine a good number of non-Catholics and people of goodwill will also contribute in what ways they can, if they have heard of the pope’s call.

Yesterday I caught a cold from one of the brethren here, so my fasting today will lose much of its merit as I am not very hungry! Nevertheless, for all Catholics in good health between 18 and 65 years of age, fasting involves eating only one full meal for the day. Many will practise a liquid fast, restricting themselves to beverages and soups. On the level of prayer, something beyond the normal commitment is called for. An extra Rosary perhaps? Going to Saturday Mass (thus not the Vigil for Sunday)? 15 minutes before the Blessed Sacrament? Lighting a candle or two, with accompanying prayers, before our Lady’s statue in a church or chapel? 15 minutes in prayerful reading of the Beatitudes? Prayer before an altar or image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus? Adding the prayer to St Michael to our normal devotions?

The allegation of chemical weapons use in Syria has precipitated an even direr crisis. One Youtube video (and not the only one) asks reasonable questions about the attack. One does not need to become a skeptic about the reality of the attack, but one could quite reasonably ask for the evidence of it to be clearly set out. Likewise, the US and UK governments, almost immediately on the apparent atrocity being reported, determined to strike at the Syrian government. This was before the UN inspectors had even begin their investigation. As yet we have not seen any real evidence of the Syrian government’s responsibility. Assertions of it are not enough. A Carmelite abbess in Syria has some bold words that we would do well to note.

We remember all too well Tony Blair’s and George W Bush’s assertions that Iraq possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction, and on this basis we went to war in Iraq. In the course of this decade-long campaign two things have become starkly clear: no weapons of mass destruction were found, nor evidence of them having existed; Iraq is now an highly unstable country propped up by American money, with its population divided and close to civil war.

So it was with great relief that the UK Parliament actually employed the democratic process so championed by the Western alliance (when it intervenes in non-democratic countries) and voted against British military intervention. There was no clear evidence of guilt and no evidence that intervention would benefit anyone but Al Qaeda and jihadist rebels in Syria.

For, as the video highlights, why would the Syrian government use chemical weapons so near to Damascus, with UN officials in the vicinity, and with the threat of US retaliation regularly and loudly made? It would be tantamount to a death-wish, and Mr Assad shows no sign of being suicidal or hysterical with desperation. The only winners from such an attack would be the rebels. It should be remembered that a number of government troops have defected to the rebels, and could easily have brought with them some chemical weapons. And it equally likely that if the rebels did not deliberately launch an attack, the recent apparent gassing of civilians may be an accident, the result of rebels’ inexperience and ineptitude in handling such dangerous items.

Further complicating matters is the division in the Muslim world. Shia are pitted against Sunni, and nations that stand in either camp intervene in Syria to their own advantage. Saudi Arabia clearly supports the rebels, and Iran clearly supports the government. We have seen the tragic results when a power vacuum is created in a mixed Muslim country like Iraq after Western military intervention. The medicine was worse than the disease it tried to cure.

Likewise there is no one united front covering the Syrian rebels. Some are moderates; some are jihadists intent on erecting a hardline Muslim state in the place of secular Syria; some are Al Qaeda infiltrators seeking to exploit the chaos. Whom would Western intervention actually help? Jihadists and Al Qaeda? How could the Western alliance (what remains of it in this case) guarantee that any arms they sent to the rebels would not fall into militant Muslim hands?

For all their many faults, Assad and Saddam Hussein, and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, were able to maintain stability, balancing Islam with a secular approach that allowed Muslim and Christian minorities to live in relative peace and promoted a good degree of economic prosperity. There may have been little democracy under these regimes, but why do so many assume that Western-style democracy is a panacea for every nation? Some countries are just not ready for it, and it cannot be implanted straight into a nation’s political landscape and be expected to work from the outset. Democracy functions well enough in western nations because we have previously weathered centuries of conflict which prepared the civil soil for democracy. All this, of course, assumes that democracy is really a major issue for the US government, and not merely a propaganda tool. We would be fools indeed to think that the US (and UK) do not have strategic interests dominating their planning; otherwise we would have already intervened in North Korea or Zimbabwe by now. Sadly, they seemed to have learned nothing from Afghanistan and Iraq, and are advocating the same failed approach for Syria.

Christians have perhaps begin the biggest losers in the Syrian conflict. Churches have been razed by the rebels, Christians murdered or forced either to flee or cower in holes – remember the martyrdom of Fr Mourad at the hands of rebels? Remember the two Syrian Orthodox bishops kidnapped by the rebels, and of whom we have heard nothing since? The bishops of the various Catholic, Orthodox and Oriental churches have all spoken against any Western intervention, as has Pope Francis. Trappist nuns in Syria have heart-wrenching words that the West will probably ignore. The biggest losers from Western intervention will be the native Christian population, as their lives and their culture are threatened. The biggest winners will be Muslim fundamentalists, jihadists and Al Qaeda.

Al Qaeda… Perhaps the most worrying thing about US foreign policy is that it has no sense of where its actions will lead, nor any moral compass in choosing whom they support. Remember, Al Qaeda was made possible not by Osama bin Laden, but by the US government, and that is from the horse’s mouth.