Through Shadows and Images...

A Blog by Tom Gourlay

Month: July 2016

31 July – Eighteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Gospel Luke 12:13-21

“Watch, and be on your guard against avarice of any kind”

You are what you love.’ Such is the title and basic premise of a book I have been reading recently by the theologian James K.A. Smith.

What underpins such a bold and perhaps somewhat confusing assertion is an anthropological claim that humans are primarily lovers. This stands in stark contrast to the modern (Cartesian) notion of humans as ‘thinking things.’

What he means is that it is not just enough for us to simply hold to a belief, or set of propositions intellectually. How often do we find ourselves falling back into habits we have continually vowed to eschew! (cf. Rom 7:13-25). As the philosopher, Dietrich von Hildebrand was known to have said, ‘enthusiasm for a virtue is not the same thing as possessing it.’

In his rather demanding words about the evils of avarice or greed, Jesus is admonishing us to guard our heart – to be cautious about what becomes the object of our love. In this, Jesus emphasises a significant truth: that the human appetite is infinite.

St Augustine of Hippo would emphasise this reality in the opening pages of his autobiography ‘The Confessions.’ He writes, “You have made us for yourself O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you,” essentially pointing to the reality that the human person is created for eternal union with the Triune God, and nothing but this union will suffice.

The Confessions go on to describe a life of passionate but misplaced loves that consistently fail to satisfy poor Augustine until, that is, he finds rest, in not only the knowledge but the love of God.

What is it that I love? Have I allowed a love of fleeting things to consume me?

Point to Ponder

Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.

– St Augustine of Hippo – The Confessions Book X, Ch. 27

26 July – Seventeeth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Gospel Luke 11:1-13

“Say this when you pray…”

The question posed to Jesus in today’s Gospel reading is a genuine expression of deep humanity on the part of the asker. There is a profound existential awareness in his question; it expresses the basic human yearning for an ultimate meaning to life.

The question emerges from a fundamental understanding that we are often out of touch with, that I do not make myself, that I am given. ‘Prayer,’ writes Fr Giussani, ‘begins from our realisation that we are not the makers of our own life, that an Other is the source of this life, freely, instant by instant.’ (p. 122)

The desire to pray is witnessed in all cultures, but here Jesus unveils something unique – that the Mystery to which we attempt to connect with in prayer, is a ‘You’, an-other ‘I’, one whom we can call ‘Father.’

This personal nature of the Mystery opens up a new horizon. Here is a God whom we can call Father, who creates, not just once and for all, but continues to hold us in existence. ‘This brings us to a wonderful and revolutionary discovery: that we are continually wanted, in other words loved, by God; that to exist is to be loved by God’, (ibid).

Jesus teaches us that prayer is essentially an act of asking. The prayer he teaches is a list of petitions – it is a constant reminder that I am dependent; that I am reliant upon God for everything – that I do not make myself or give myself existence. All is gift. All is given.

This is incredibly jarring in our contemporary context, where a self-centred and constructivist view of the self dominates. We tend to emphasise activity and making, over and above contemplation and receptivity.

In prayer we come before God and acknowledge the reality of existence, we ask for our needs, we pray for his will to be done a will that ‘in fact means my completeness, supreme happiness’ (p. 92).

Point to Ponder

‘One must be superficial and lacking in common sense to see prayer as a cowardly attitude or entreaty as weakness. To ask for perfection and happiness is a need implied in our nature, and since man is essentially dependant, any other attitude would be foolish presumption and empty pride.’ – Luigi Giussani, The Journey to Truth is an Experience, p.123

17 July – Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Gospel Luke 10:38-42

“You worry and fret about so many things, and yet few are needed”

Last week’s Gospel reading saw Jesus detailing the most important laws – love of God and neighbour, with the vivid imagery of the Good Samaritan beautifully illustrating who our neighbour is.

The Gospel today however seems to offer an interesting elaboration on the first and greatest commandment – that we must first love God.

As Mary sits at the feet of Jesus, listening to him Martha seems to grow increasingly frustrated, as she is busy with the important tasks of providing hospitality for their guest.

Her frustrations are ones that we all can no doubt easily relate with.

Martha, in this story, is an image of the modern person. We are so often tempted to rely upon ourselves – to focus on what we can do in any given circumstance.

Relying on our own steam, we can become consumed with relentless activity, (even objectively good activity), and miss what is truly important – the opportunity to commune with Christ – to fulfil that first commandment.

Absent from love of God, love of neighbour becomes thin and hollow, it begins to become a burden.

Jesus’ words to Martha are not condemning her work – work that is no doubt important. Instead, he is gently admonishing her, reminding her of the ultimate end, or goal, of her activity.

Martha has fallen into the temptation that continues to plague us today. The remedy, to spend time in a posture exemplified by Mary, at the foot of Jesus. Listening. In prayer and contemplation. Then our activities can be carried out in full awareness of the presence of him who came amongst us.

Point to Ponder

Martha and Mary are always inseparable, even if, time to time, the accent can fall on one or the other. The point of encounter between the two poles is the love in which we touch God and his creatures at the same time. “We have come to know and believe in the love that God has for us”. (I John 4:16) This phrase expresses the authentic nature of Christianity. That love, which is realized and reflected in multiform ways in the saints of all times, is the authentic proof of the truth of Christianity. – Pope Benedict XVI, Oct 21, 2014


Nature, Grace and Catholic Engagement in Contemporary Cultural Debate


Recently a paper I wrote was accepted for publication at New Blackfriars Review. (A link can be found here).

The piece, (which I am in fact not entirely happy with), covers material that has occupied by thoughts for some time namely, the debates surrounding nature and grace that have been raging since the publication of Henri de Lubac’s Surnaturel thesis in 1946.

The heat in this debate seems to have died down in recent years, and the arguments advanced on both sides are no longer met with accusations of heresy. The papacies of both John Paul II and Benedict XVI seem to have solidified de Lubac’s position to be at least within the bounds of orthodoxy.

The concern that has been raised most recently is that some of the rigor in this debate has been lost. Proponents of de Lubac’s thesis have been accused of taking a triumphalistic line and no longer engaging with the substance of alternative and competing arguments as they emerge from the camps of those professing a Thomism-of-Strict-Observance. My argument, I am somewhat embarrassed to say, seems to take a fairly triumphalistic tone. It does not engage with the recent scholarship in this area (namely the works of Lawrence Feingold and Steven A. Long), but really it never had any pretensions to. (I am not 100% convinced that my entry into this discussion will really add much anyway).

Instead, what I was seeking to do was to put out a paper that would be something of a catalyst for discussion around how Catholics engage in popular debate around contentious social issues. To that end, I hope that it hits home.

I’d be interested to know if you have any thoughts on this.

10 July – Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Gospel Mk 6:7-13

“Master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

When the lawyer in today’s reading stands before Christ he asks a question of enduring significance, ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ This is echoed in a similar story in Matthew’s Gospel [ch 19], where the question is asked by the rich young man. We note here that both these questioners are unnamed, because, in a very real sense, in them we recognize every person who has asked this question.

In answering the lawyer, Jesus points him back to the Scriptures, to what God has already revealed. The man gives a good response: he is to love both God and neighbour.

It is interesting that it is the second of these two commandments that arouses the curiosity of the lawyer, ‘Who is my neighbour?’, he asks.

Were this exchange to be happening today, it seems to me that it would be the first of these commandments that would arouse the curiosity of the lawyer: Why must I love God? Why can I not simply show love to my neighbour? In the face of seemingly senseless pain and suffering, modern man demands that God justify himself before us, rather than the other way around.

To answer this, we turn to that similar story mentioned above, in Mt 19. In his answer to the rich young man, Jesus tells him to “go, sell your possessions and give the money to the poor… and then come, follow me.” The love of neighbour he requires is not superficial, it is not simply the gift of excess money to those who are less fortunate. It is a love that is animated by the love of God, exemplified in the total self-giving of Christ on the cross.

The command to love our neighbour might seem hard to argue with. What Jesus is proposing, however, is far more radical than a mere secular philanthropy. It asks of us a real love. A love that is total. A love that requires complete self-sacrifice.

Words of Wisdom

As he calls the young man to follow him along the way of perfection, Jesus asks him to be perfect in the command of love, in “his” commandment: to become part of the unfolding of his complete giving, to imitate and rekindle the very love of the “Good” Teacher, the one who loved “to the end”. This is what Jesus asks of everyone who wishes to follow him: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mt 16:24).

St Pope John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, 20

Love is a mighty thing…

Love seeks no cause nor end but itself. Its fruit is its activity. I love because I love, I love that I may love. Love is a mighty thing, if it so returns to its own principle and origin, if it flows back to its source and ever draws anew whence it may flow again. Love is the only one of all the senses, movements, and affections of the soul, by which the creature can answer to its creator and repay like with like.[1]

[1] Bernard, In Cantica, LXXXIII, cited in Christopher Dawson, Medieval Essays, The Works of Christopher Dawson. Edited by Don. J. Briel Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, p. 92

3 July – Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Gospel Luke 10:1-12,17-20

‘The Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them out ahead of him…’

They were sent. 72 of them.

Often we think that the Apostles were limited to the twelve, and of course, these twelve do play a particular role, but here we have something else happening. Jesus sends out a great many people, 72, to prepare the people of those places that he was to visit for his coming.

This tells us something of the Divine pedagogy – God does not become man in Christ Jesus to reveal himself by surprise on an unsuspecting world. Rather, he began slowly, singling out a man, Abraham, and from him a nation of people. These he taught through his prophets, and then, when the fullness of time had come, he came amongst them as one of them. [cf. Gal 4:4]

What we learn throughout the history of salvation is played out in miniature in today’s Gospel reading – the loving God prepares the people for his coming. When he enters their existence, he does so after having prepared them for his coming, and only at their welcoming invitation.

What he brings to them, and what he brings to us, is something that is beyond their understanding and beyond their reach. He calls them and us, to a sanctity of life that is beyond the merely legalistic following of laws, but one of radical freedom and of love. He calls them to a supernatural happiness or beatitude that is not within their reach alone, yet which we all, in our nature long for.

No matter where we are along this journey, we are called to be like the 72, in preparing the way for Christ to coming to the lives of those to whom we come in to contact.

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