My Sole’s Desire

If ever there was an unsinkable sin, it is pride.

Just when you think you’re finally getting the upper hand, in it pops into your heart again like sand from the beach in your shoes. That’s the darned nuisance of it! It is too small to notice, until it builds up and grates on your sole (soul). And when you finally pay attention to it and start shaking it out, it just never seems to go away. You can’t SEE anymore of it, but once you put your shoes back on and start walking – there it is again, annoyingly irritating!

And if, by some miracle of grace you manage to free yourself from its clutches for a little while, don’t get too comfortable …

It lies in wait, silently stalking the unsuspecting prey. Let him feel secure … let him think himself safe … the safer he feels, the easier to hunt him …

Sure enough, just when you thought it was safe to go outside …


Back to square one, yet again (sigh).

Why is it so hard?

Is it because we so easily confuse our need for self esteem with its correlating vice, the need for the approval of others? Or is it because we think so little of ourselves that we need to invent things to feel good about? Why must I be great / special / popular / successful / wealthy / powerful / admired / (fill in your own brand of pride here)???

Why can I not just accept that this is who I am, this is how God made me, and that He knows what He’s doing? If I could drum it into my thick head that God actually loves me as He made me, and stop trying to impress Him, or me or anyone else, life would be SO much simpler. “But by the grace of God, I am what I am” said St Paul.

Perhaps that’s what it takes. He said that because he knew that all his life he had to live with the knowledge that he had previously been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of innocent, gentle Christians. That sort of burden weighs you down so much that there isn’t a lot of room left for pride underneath it.

When we are most broken, then we are closest to God…

Perhaps, then, the answer lies in learning to know myself truly, learning to understand my profound weakness on the one hand, and God’s immeasurably greater mercy and love on the other.

Oh well … “In your patience possess ye your soles”.

Fr Ant

An Axe To Grind

If the axe is dull and one does not sharpen the edge, then he must use more strength; but wisdom brings success.
Ecclesiastes 10:10

There is a lot of power in this simple little observation. When you hear it, you think “Well that’s pretty obvious!” yet it is amazing how often I will keep on chopping with a blunt axe, apparently more willing to invest more and more energy into each blow for less and less result, rather than simply taking a few moments out to sharpen it.

This applies to many things in life, but perhaps most especially to one’s spiritual life. How many people persevere unthinkingly with an unfruitful spiritual activity – with empty prayers, for example, or disasterous ways of dealing with others – and never think to stop and sharpen the axe?

Ten minutes to think and pray about praying could make the world of difference for all the hours of praying I have yet to do in my life! Ten minutes of analyzing what I did wrong, that so upset someone today, could save me dozens of lost hours trying to solve similar future problems, as well as saving both of us the horrible negative feelings that go beside these disputes.

I often desire the sharpness of my axe that will smoothly and effortlessly cut through the red tape of life. Yet far less often do I trouble to stop what I’m doing and walk over to the sharpening wheel.

Fr Ant

“… To Wide Critical Acclaim”

“Wow, that was a great sermon today, wasn’t it!”
“Yeah, and last week’s was really good too!”
“Oh really? I missed that one.”
“It was mad! One of the best I’ve heard.”
“The one two weeks ago wasn’t so good though. Not enough oomph, you know? I thought it was really dry.”
“No, I remember that one. Yeah, they let the standard drop a bit sometimes, don’t they?”
“I’ll tell you what, though, I went to St Fruitious Church a while back – not happy Jan.”
“Oh, the sermon was a real dog. No life in it, you know? Doesn’t rate compared to our sermons we get. I don’t really know how the people at St Fruitious put up with that.”
“Yeah, I know. We’re really lucky here. Nothing but the best quality, hey?”

The dialogue you’ve just read is fictitious, but I am sad to say it’s not far off some real world discussions I have heard. Attitudes like this bring a question to my mind: What is the purpose of a sermon?

Having heard the two parishioners above, you might be forgiven for thinking that a sermon’s main goal was to entertain you. Change some of the nouns in that dialougue and you could be listening to two people discussing the latest movies. That is what film critics do. Their job is to assess the value of a movie, and then report on it to the public. I am not a professional film critic, but I imagine it must make it a little hard to just sit back and enjoy the experience when you have to be on the lookout for faults and shortcomings, and make sure you remember them for future reference. When I hear people talking about the ‘quality’ of a sermon, and comparing sermons, and so on, I get a little worried. I wonder whether they have benefitted from the hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit, or whether they missed out on hearing that voice because they were too busy being merely ‘critics’.

Most of the priests and servants I know have a very simple rule about speaking in public (and in private too, most of the time!) It is this: DON”T SPEAK. Don’t let yourself speak. Pray with all your heart that God will be kind enough to put you to one side, and let His Holy Spirit speak instead of you. It is remarkable what a difference this principle makes.

I have had the experience (all too often) of going into a talk all full of confidence, based on my hours of careful preparation and research, only to find that it fizzles into a whole lot of gibberish, and no one gets anything out of it. On the other hand, I have also had the experience of finding myself forced to give a talk I haven’t prepared, realising that I am totally incapable of doing it, begging and pleading for God to come to the rescue of these poor people who must endure sitting and listening to me, and then finding that it turns in to one of the best talks I have ever given. In these situations, it is not uncommon for me to find that I myself needed to hear those words the Holy Spirit brought out of my own mouth – it’s almost like I too am in the audience, listening to His words attentively.

Now please don’t get me wrong – I am not describing some sort of mystical trance state here! I am simply remarking that the Biblical principle of “When I am weak, then I am strong” applies really well to this situation. Which makes me think a little further … who are we little humans to be critics of the words of the Holy Spirit? Is it our place to come out of a talk or sermon and give the Holy Spirit a mark out of ten?

“Great sermon today – I’d give it 8 1/2.”
“Oh, come on. Surely not! The stories were old and that’s the fifth time he’s used repentance as his theme in a month. I’d give it 6 1/2.”

Somehow, that just doesn’t seem right…

Perhaps a better response is to do what all true movie lovers do – just sit back and pay attention, and let the sermon seep into your consciousness. Open your heart and mind as well as your ears and eyes. Be on the lookout for that phrase or idea that God wants you to hear today. Don’t get sidetracked with irrelevant details like how the speaker delivers his speeach, or whether he has a nice voice or not, or whether you’ve heard this before, or any of the multitude of other criteria that critics use.

God speaks to us in many ways every day of our lives. Some of these ways are subtle and hard to pinpoint, while others are quite obvious. We all expect to hear Him speaking to us in a sermon or talk – that’s a pretty obvious place for Him to speak! Don’t waste the opportunity by being critic.

Fr Ant

Roof Ruminations

Those of you who know me might know that I am interested in the stars.

The sky at night has always fascinated me, ever since I was little. I could lie for hours on my back on the ground just gazing up at that velvet dark blue canvas with the multitude of delicate sparkles of light and occasional faint wisp of silvery mist. I can totally agree with the Psalmist who wrote The heavens declare the glory of God …

I find many things to think about when I look at the stars. Their distance astounds me and humbles me. The closest star to us is Proxima Centauri, a little over 4 light years away. That means that the light we see from it today left the star over four years ago, in 2003, and has been shooting towards us all that time a tthe speed of light (300,000km/hr). The furthest objects visible in the most powerful telescopes, quasars, are 12,000,000,000 light years away. How big is the universe? Unbelievabley, mind-blowingly, unimaginabley HUGE!!! So how big are we, the great human race? We are nothing. We could blow up our whole planet and the universe wouldn’t even notice – we’d be no more than mosquito’s sneeze in the grand tale of time.

That’s a good thing to remember, for we sometimes think we are the centre of the universe. Sometimes we even think that of ourselves individually, not even as a human race. That’s just not true. The greatest among us is still no more than a little blip in this cosmos. Again, the Psalmist asks God What is man, that You are mindful of him, or the son of man that You visit him? We could extend that to ask, What are the problems of man, that You should care for them? Yet God does care. The God who made this big, big universe shows me His love by caring for my tiny little problems in the midst of this huge cosmos, and I find comfort in the fact that He who moves the galaxies can solve my little problem pretty easily.

Lying on the ground at night, gazing into the depths of space, you can sometimes convince yourself that you are indeed on the surface of a planet hurtling through the void. Yet night after night, as the sun hides his shining face and the little specks of light begin to peek from behind their veil of light, you find they have not moved. In our lifetimes, the stars do not move. Planets do, and the moon does, and perhaps the odd comet or so, but the vast multitude of the heavens is there, day after day, unchanging, unmoving, fixed in their places, it seems eternally. No power hungry dictator, no mad scientist, no crazed anarchist can ever change them, or even touch them. It makes you realise just how feeble we are on this little planet, but I also find it a greatly comforting thought, for it reflects the unchanging steady nature of God Himself. I find the stars reassuring every night, in their regular places, and so also God reassures me every day, as I move through my human phases while He remains always a solid rock to navigate by.

Next time you happen to be outdoors at night, take a look up at the sky, and remember the One who created it for us, the most incredible roof anyone ever designed …

Fr Ant

A Sad Case

The bloated body of a dead child in a suitcase, floating on the calm waters of a pond.

That story must rank among the saddest we’ve seen in recent times. It turns out to have been the result of a very disfunctional family. A young mother with three children from three different fathers. The exact details of what happened have yet to be revealed, but they are not hard to guess. My guess is that her home was not a happy home, nor a secure one. I could guess that the poor woman was having trouble coping, perhaps was using drugs or alcohol, and very likely was getting herself involved in very unhealthy relationships with abusive men. It is not unlikely that her childhood was not a happy one, with abusive or uncaring parents, and she ended up seeking affection and acceptance wherever she could find it.

And thus the cycle continued to repeat. The dead little child, I am sure, was not the first sad result of this cycle. And no doubt, unless something is done, her other two children (and any more she might have in future) are more than likely to continue the same sad cycle in thier own lives, and bequeath it upon their children, and their children’s children …

I know it sounds a bit harsh, perhaps even a bit fascist, but I sometimes wonder whether being a parent should require a license, like driving a car. Imagine what would happen if anyone could just jump into any car or truck and drive where they wanted. There would be some pretty bad disasters, because many people would not take the time and trouble to be taught how to drive safely and courteously. That is exactly what is happening to our society socially. Parenthood needs certain skills that must be learnt. Most parents learn those skills by modelling themselves on their parents, or on other close relatives and friends they admire, and they learn their skills the hard way: through trial and error. I am sure that some of you out there probably wish your parents had done a course or something! Most parents muddle through, get advice from grandparents and somehow, by the grace of God, produce pretty well brought up offspring. Some parents end up witht their offspring in a bag on a pond.

In the follow up reporting by the media , some startling statistics are emerging about the size of this problem. Here are a few:

– 240,000 calls are made to the The NSW Department of Community Services each year (1). That’s 657 calls a day, or roughly one call every two minutes, around the clock.

– one in 15 NSW children is now reported to DOCS (2).

Is our society really that sick? Is it falling apart right inside, where no one can see it? Occasionally we see the outward signs that society is declining. Murders, assaults and thefts are becoming more commonplace. It is no longer possible to do some of the things I used to do when I was young, like leave your bike on the front lawn, or for a child to go to the park and play with friends without parents being there, or leave your front door unlocked or windows open when you go out, or even walk in your street after dark. Perhaps these very obvious conditions are partially the result of this breakdown in our care for each other, especially the breakdown in the family.

Nowadays, anyone who supports ‘family values’ is labelled regressive, narrow-minded – an old fashioned nerd. Get with it! This is the twenty first century mate!” Sex without responsibility, single mothers, teenage mothers, easy divorce … all these are now the quite normal and acceptable. The old Mt Druitt High School cared for its students by providing nappy changing facilities and stroller accesible classrooms for its female students who brought their children to school. And just recently, a school board in Portland, Maine USA approved that condoms be provided free to its students aged 11 to 13 (3). Very enlightened.

The net result of this enlightenment has been the breakdown of the traditional family, with its traditional roles, and with all the benefits that one traditionally got from it. Having adults who not only care for you, but care enough to give whatever time and resources you need to grow. Having parents who will sacrifice their lives for you. Learning boundaries, and feeling secure as you grow up and develop your personality. Feeling loved and accepted. I know that not all families are ideal, and that every family has its faults, but by and large, the commitment to the very concept of “family” has given society and individuals tremendous benefits. Just how tremendous those benefits are is now being revealed as the family begins to fall apart in our society and we see what life is like without it. A bloated little body in a bag on the pond …

Christianity teaches that the family is very important to our lives. A loving, life long, self-sacrificial committment by two people to each other is its beginning. That love is then lavished upon the little children who come to join the party, until they are ready to leave the nest and go on to make their own committment to someone. And underlying the whole process, the central committment of each individual to God, that takes us out of ourselves, and teaches us, by the example of Christ, that the goal of our lives is to lose ourselves and thus find life in the love of Christ.




Coptic Women Priests?

I recently came across an interesting book by a pretty conservative Eastern Orthodox theologian on the topic of women in the Orthodox priesthood. You can guess that he was against the idea. What struck me about the book, though, was that some of the arguments he used were totally alien to my understanding of the priesthood.

Especially noticeable was one argument that kept pooping up, whether directly or indirectly, that I might paraphrase as follows:

Priesthood means authority. Authority means control, power, being in charge.
The woman is not fit for this role, since she is the man’s helper, not his boss.
Therefore, we can never have Orthodox women priests.

I’m not sure what you would make of this?

I don’t intend to get into the whole “a helpmate meet for him” argument in this post. It just seemed to me that this argument was weak because it was built on one big mistake: Priesthood is not first and foremost about authority; it is about service.

That this is the teaching of Christ couldn’t be any clearer. He said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28)

HH Pope Shenouda III wrote in his spiritual classic a chapter entitled “Poor Men” (Al Masakeen, I think). In it, he describes his pity for those who are ordained to the ranks of the priesthood, pointing out that they will be judged not only for their own deeds, but for those of the people whom they serve. Imagine, he says, the poor Pope – who will be held responsible for the fates of millions of souls! Perhaps you can guess he wrote this when he was still a layman, before entering the monastery. Prophetic, though, wasn’t it!

Now that’s the understanding of priesthood (and indeed, any kind of Church position) that I can relate to. The world is all about power and control and advantage and prestige. But those ideas should never be allowed to get in and contaminate the spiritual service. If ever the priest needs to exercise some sort of ‘power’ or ‘authority’ over his flock, it should never be out of a lust to control others, or pride or selfishness. It should be because that is the only avenue left to him to achieve the will of God and the spiritual goals of the Church. It can also only be successful if the people he serves are willingly accepting that authority. Yet it is an authority that any sane man would flee from, for it is very, very dangerous.

What if he makes the wrong decision? What if those he serves suffer because of his orders? There is a great scope for doing damage here! I recently saw a documentary about the Jim Jones tragedy in South America. In short, an American pastor grew gradually more and more manipulative of his flock. Being very charismatic, his influence upon them grew to such an extent that he was able to take 900 of them to a jungle in South America to build a new country, Jonestown, where everything would be perfect. With a frightening array of tools of psychological manipulation, these people virtually became his slaves. Eventually, the whole thing ended with him making them all commit suicide with him. Scary.

No, religious leadership is about serving. It is about the genuine needs of those being served – not the needs of the servant. Because of this, it is often a very harsh, very difficult path to follow. Which means that any sensible person would run a mile to escape it. If you have ever seen a Coptic bishop being ordained, you will have noticed that he is brought in to Church with two strong bishops holding him firmly by each arm. Although this is largely ceremonial now, its original purpose was to stop the candidate from running away! Pope Shenouda himself repeatedly refused to be ordained as a bishop, until Pope Kyrollos VI virtually forced the matter by one day unexpectedly placing his hand on his head in the corridor, and saying “I ordain you, Shenouda, Bishop in the Orthodox CHurch of God …” There was no escape.

Pope Shenouda is famous for saying “Those who wish to be ordained as priests are usually unsuitable, and those who are suitable, usually do not wish to be ordained”. There is a lot of wisdom in this. Only a person who really understands the responsibility and the sacrifice of priesthood is suitable to be ordained. Yet that is the very person who would run away from it because of that huge responsiblity and sacrifice!

Which seems to me the biggest reason why it is unlikely that we will have women priests in the Coptic Orthodox Church … they are too smart for that đŸ™‚

But seriously, I think we are very blessed to have a ‘humble’ attitude to service in the Church. We do not see it as authority, or prestige, or position or power. Priesthood is simply one important service among many others. The Church runs through teamwork, joint effort, not through the efforts of any one individual. There is simply a need for one individual to organise that teamwork, and that happens to be the priest. There is a need for one individual to be set aside for the very scary task of administering the sacraments, and that happens to be the priest. It is a frightening thing to approach an altar with the Body and Blood upon it – frightening because we are sinners, and we are approaching an unimaginably powerful Holiness. But the priest does it because someone has to, and because God has called him to be that someone. No one in their right mind would put themselves forward to do it – only those who don’t quite understand what it really means.

Sadly, in modern life, even Christian Churches have become infected with this idea of power and authority – hence the fight over who is to rule. I hope our Church never loses its innocence. It’s not about anyone ruling.

It’s all about serving.

Fr Ant

The Goods of God and Man

Romans 12:9

Let love be without hypocrisy.
Abhor what is evil,
Cling to what is good.

I gave a talk on this verse yesterday at Sydney Uni Coptic Society, and it made me think. Allow me to share some thoughts with you.

The thing that struck me most was the command for us to be ONE, to be whole. I am not speaking about a congregation or a family being united here, I am speaking about the individual not being divided against him/herself.

The words are very strong: ABHOR … CLING – there is no wavering here! My interpretation is that St Paul is asking us, “Who are you?” What kind of a person are you? What motivates you, and what moves you? What repels you and what sets your heart on fire?

One of the main ways we define ourselves, or think about who we are, is by what we believe, what we value, or what we think to be important or true. If I try to make up a list of these values I personally hold,I wonder what they would be? Would they all fall under the category of “good”?

Of course they would! I wouldn’t hold those values unless I thought they were good … god for ME, that is. But that’s not necessarily ‘good’ in the sense St Paul was talking about. For him, ‘good’ is not what any individual thinks to be good, but what God thinks to be good, and there can be a very big difference between the two, and often is.

So to fulfil this verse, I have to find out what God thinks is good. That’s not so hard – it’s all in the Bible. What is hard is to let go of my own concept of good. A simple example:

Someone annoys me really badly.

My good: teach the idiot a lesson he’ll never forget – he deserves it, and it will make me feel so much better

God’s good: Blessed are you when men revile and persecute you … and if he strikes you on the cheek, turn to him the other … do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Which one I choose out of those two determines who I am. To CLING to what is good is not easy. There are many, many forces, both within and without me, that are trying to prise me away from what is good. This verse informs me what it takes to hang on: CLING!!! Hang on tight! Never let go! Never give up! If your grip slips, clamber it back on again quick!

And on the other side of the coin: ABHOR!!! Hate! (yes, hate!) This is what hatred was made for – for things that are evil. We are not only allowed to hate evil, we are commanded to hate evil. We must hate evil. We must shun evil, and fight it and escape it with all our mind, strength, heart and soul.

To do anything less than this is to allow oneself to be a divided person. You can’t go for two goals at the same time, when they are at opposite ends of the field! You’ve got to make up your mind whose side you’re on, and then play for that side, aim for that goal.

Only then can love truly be without hypocrisy. Hypocrisy comes from a divided soul. One part of me wants to say and teach nice things. Another part of me wants to practice sins. The two cannot be in harmony. I find I have become a hypocrite.

The Teaching of the 12 Apostles (Didache) (2nd century AD) begins with the famous words:

There are two ways, one of life and one of death: but a great difference between the two ways.

And we will give the last word to Joshua:

choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve … But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.

Those who are about to HSC

Speaking to some of our Year 12s on the weekend, I noticed a variety of attitudes, with only about 2 weeks left before the Moment of Truth.

Some students seemed pretty relaxed – either they know they’ve got it in the bag, or they don’t care, or they’re pretty good actors. Others though, were definitely showing the signs of beginning to crack up. So I thought this time I might see if I couldn’t bring a little cheer into this momentous period of their lives. If you’ve already been through all this, please let your younger fellows know that there IS indeed life after the HSC…

Now some of you may be aware (I don’t mention it that often) that I very strongly believe in that profound Biblical doctrine that is best summed in these words:


You will immediately recognise that my main Biblical foundation for this dogma is James 1:2

My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials

Now some have very foolishly doubted the link between this verse and the HSC, but it seems as clear as the nose on my face to me (please disregard the times when there is a pimple on my nose and it is anything but clear). “Trials”, as you all know, are the last set of exams Year 12 students do before sitting their major Final Exams. That St James, back in the First Century AD, was aware of this is made very obvious if we consider some more verses from his Epistle. For example:

To the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad: (1:1) is a very obvious reference to the HSC, being a test for Year “twleve”, which is conducted all over the state, with some students even sitting the exam at overseas centres – hence, scattered abroad. Later, he writes:

knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience(1:3)

Ahhhh. What is it now that produces patience? “testing”!!! How much plainer can he make it? Clearly this word, “testing” is to be identified with exam centres, and supervisors, and exam papers – all that stuff we associate with the word. And there’s more:

9 Let the lowly brother glory in his exaltation, 10 but the rich in his humiliation, because as a flower of the field he will pass away. 11 For no sooner has the sun risen with a burning heat than it withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beautiful appearance perishes. So the rich man also will fade away in his pursuits. (1:9-11)

This is obviously a reference to the total worthlessness of your HSC mark once you have left school. Employers don’t care too much about it, and even universities are now steering away from using it as the criterion for choosing their students, preferring instead to depend on more accurate measures like UMAT (= Unrelenting Mental Agony and Torture) exams or interviews. Yes, the richest of UAIs will quickly fade away like a beautiful flower burned by the hot noonday sun of competition in the real world. Isn’t that a comforting thought!

Why, then, I hear you ask, must we suffer this pain? What’s the point?

Well, the point is actually more: the points. Here are my reasons for hanging on, doing your very best until the end, and diving over the line as hard as you can:

1. For many of you, your UAI will decide your future. Sorry. That’s life.

2. You might surprise and amaze yourself with what you can actually do if you really have to. Believe it or not, what you have to learn for the HSC is pretty measly compared with what you are going to learn at Uni, TAFE or work. The only thing that makes it seem so hard is the pressure of what’s riding on it. Take that away, and you could do it with one hand tied behind your back, with a blindfild on, and while rubbing your tummy and patting your head whilst all the time whistling “Bananas in Pyjamas” in Croatian. (please don’t comment on that sentence. It makes no sense to me, either).

3. You will learn a lot more than calculus and chemistry. You will actually develop really useful things like character, inner strength, faith, patience, calmness under pressure, stamina, self-confidence, resilience and much more. Some of the most important lessons you learn in Years 11 & 12 DON’T appear on your certificate.

4. You will enjoy your holidays an awful lot more if you don’t have a miserable dark cloud hanging over your head and following you wherever you go, with the words “You didn’t try very hard, did you?” stamped across it. It can really take the fun out of everything you do. Including sleep.

5. Many others have trod this path and run this race before you. They stuck it out to the very end – are you gonna let them get away with thinking they’re better than you??!!??

6. God loves you, no matter what.

7. We love you, no matter what.

Is that enough? I’m looking forward to seeing you all at the HSC Liturgy this Saturday 6th October 8:30-10:30an, followed by our traditional pre-exam HSC breakfast (sort of like the Grand Final Breakfast, hey?). The Fathers will be there to offer you their words of encouragement and support (and take any last minute confessions!) and to resuscitate anyone who conks out.

The days to come won’t be easy:

But there’s nothing to prevent them from being enjoyable…

By the way, for a little light entertainment, you might enjoy the following:

But don’t spend too much time watching – you’ve got work to do!!!

Fr Ant

The Doubts of the Saintly

In response to my reference to the late Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Tony mentions that he has come across some references to the times in her life when she apparently felt that God was very far from her, and even may have doubted if He was there at all. What does this tell us?

Now I am going to a bit of edifice demolition in this entry, so if you don’t enjoy that kind of thing, you’re probably better off not reading any further.

The edifice I wish to demolish today is the false view of sainthood that I think many people of faith hold in their minds. There are many who seem to think that the saints were some kind of superhuman alien, not at all like us normal humans. Saints are perfect people who brush off the worst of temptations as you or I would brush off a fly, hardly ever eat, sleep or cough, And always know exactly the right thing to say and do. Yet, they can always be relied upon to tell you how weak, poor and sinful they are, (which is manifestly untrue, but acceptable because they are saints).“Did the martyrs actually feel any pain when they were tortured, or did God stop the pain for them?” Hmmmm. Divine anaesthetic?

I felt very disturbed by this image from a very young age. It was, unfortunately, the popular image that was being presented to youngsters when I was young. I do not think the servants who presented it meant in any way to give a false impression, and very likely they held this understanding of saints quite sincerely in their hearts. I recall one lovely servant even seriously asking the question,

I don’t think so.

It seems to me that consider to the saints as supermen/women actually does them a great disservice rather than honouring them, not to mention that it is untrue. They were normal human beings, just like you and me. One of the things I love about the Bible is it’s honesty. The Old Testament tells us about larger than life heroes like Abraham, Moses and David, but it gives us the complete picture, warts and all. And the New Testament follows suit, revealing to us the personality faults of the Disciples (eg Peter’s denials and Thomas’ doubts) as well as the disagreements between the Apostles (eg the falling out of Paul and Barnabas over John Mark). I wonder if we would be so honest today if we were writing an account of modern events?

If the saints were normal humans and yet rose to such great heights, doesn’t that mean so much more than if they were angels in human form in the first place? Does it not make them far more inspiring? It does not surprise me that a modern heroine like Mother Teresa should have passed through a period of grave doubts and shaky faith – she’s a human being after all, who has simply surrendered her life to God and allowed Him to do with her whatever He wished. That her surrender was complete and genuine is proved by the wonderful work she has done. But that is all that it proves. Her work does not make her immune to the frailties of humanity.

This view of the saints gives me great hope. When I look at their icons, necessarily idealised since we have no records of what most of them really looked like, I sometimes try to picture them as a real person. Perhaps, St Abanoub as a young boy on the verge of adolescence with bright eye and a cheeky smile – the kind of boy who’d run up to you and greet you with a laugh, yet just as easily tie your sandle straps together when you weren’t looking. Or maybe St Anthony, with a serene smile and a very sharp eye sparkling with intelligence and confidence in God. He’d be a great listener, a quiet man, but the kind you knew would not lose his head in a crisis, and could be depended on in an emergency, for nothing flusters him.

Of course, these descriptions are nothing more than imagination, but they help me to remember that these saints were flesh and blood as we are. They made mistakes and said the wrong thing at times. Sometimes they upset others, sometimes they got too wrapped up in their own troubles, and sometimes they just couldn’t be bothered. In a word, they were normal. What set them apart was not any particular excellence of character they were born with (many people with excellent gifts have turned incredibly evil!) No, what set them apart was simply this: they trusted God and they gave Him their life, each in his or her own unique way.

I have no doubt that they stumbled along the path, but again, the difference is, they never gave up. Not because they were blessed with miraculous tenacity, but because they trusted God. They trusted His love. They knew that this love, undeserved as it was, could overcome anything in this world, even their own weak human nature. They appreciated that, but they knew full well they could take no credit for it.

Do not think they floated through life on the wings of angels! When St Macarius refused to agree with the devil’s calls that he had reached perfection until he was safely in Paradise, that was not mere theatrics. He knew that until the last moment of his life, he could still fall back into his old sinful ways and lose everything. The message I get from this is that the same God who worked so marvellously in them is working in me, and you, and all of us.

That’s pretty neat.

The Atheist Crusade

Thank you Tony for your comment and the links you suggested. I found the Alvin Plantinga essay very interesting. He very accurately indentifies some of Dawkins’ most glaring errors of method and logic, but his arguments in response range from the totally convincing to the pretty shaky.

Alister McGrath has written a short book in response to Dawkins’ The God Delusion in particular which is pretty strong, but a little too short! However, his previous books on the general topic of Atheism in the 21st century will satisfy the hunger and curiosity of those who want a deeper and more detailed dissection of the emptiness of today’s atheist philosophy.

One of the main faults in all of these atheist evanglists’ position is a very simple ignorance of a critically important fact: they insist on claiming that they, and all of “Science”, are totally objective – like a computer or a machine or a methematical equation. they believe that when they consider evidence they do so without any bias and with a pure and undiluted cast-iron commitment to finding the truth, whatever that truth may be. Even if they don’t state this in black and white (some do, some don’t) you can see it in their words and attitudes as clearly as you can see the sun on a sunny day. This, they believe, gives them a sort of credibility that sets their conclusions head and shoulders above those of others who are silly enough to still have religious faith.

My problem with this is that no one, no human being is that objective. Our nature does not allow us to be, and those who come closest to it have to work incredibly hard on themselves for years to build into their thought patterns even a semblance of true objectivity, when it comes to questions of philosophy or theology. One of the more objective atheists I have come across are mathematician Roger Penrose and Mind Specialist Sir Robert Winston, both of whom have a healthy respect for those who reasonably hold religious views, and both of whom cringe at the kind of bombast that people like Dawkins put out.

The fact is that whenever we look at a piece of evidence, we are doing so with a raft of pre-assumptions. Those pre-assumptions must necessarily colour the conclusions we draw from the evidence. Our minds are too limited to be able to genuinely consider ALL the possible interpretations of a given set of data, so we take the easy way – begin by considering the interpretation you feel most comfortable with, and see if you can make it work somehow. We will only ever take the considerable trouble of testing out alternative interpretations if our first interpretation is proved totally wrong.

The history of science (and the practice of science today) offers a myriad of examples that prove this is universally true. You need only to look at the lengths to which Ptolemy and his intellectual children went to prop up the theory that the earth is the centre of the universe. For 1,500 years, the most incredible gymnastics of the mind were required to explain how the sun, moon and planets move in the sky, assuming they all orbit the earth. Even when Copernicus came up with the simple (and true) explanation that the planets and earth all orbit the SUN, the scientific establishment of his day rejected it. Why? Because his theory didn’t work? NO, it worked just as well as Ptolemy’s in predicting where these heavenly bodies should be. Because it was too complicated? No, it was far, far simpler than Ptolemy’s model. The simple fact is that the greatest minds of that age had other reasons for wanting the earth to be at the centre of the universe, and this bias prevented them from seeing the truth.

If scientists today wish to pretend that they are free of any such bias, then it is truly they who are deluded. You need only read Dawkins’ opinions on religious organisations, his utter contempt for people who have a religious faith, his characterisation of religions as child abusers because they teach their children to follow their faith from a young age (I am not kidding – he devotes a whole chapter to this accusation), to understand that he is anything but an objective scientist. He has a huge weight of prejudices that clearly affect his judgment. It is the prejudice, not the evidence, that makes Dawkins so strong a defender of atheism.

Of course, this means that those on the other side of the argument are also prejudiced. Yep. That is true. But the difference is that we know that, and admit it to ourselves and to others. Yes, a Christian is biased towards believing in God – it’s called faith. We have to have a prejudice of some kind, and we happen to have chosen this particular prejudice for a raft of good reasons that I won’t try to squash into this little blog. But the fact that we know that we’re prejudiced, that we admit it, and that we even know exactly what the nature of our prejudice is, means that we can allow for it in our examination of evidence. And, we can ask ourselves honestly, “If I didn’t have that prejudice, would I see this evidence differently? And if so, how?”

Again, I emphasise: it is only because we know our bias that we can control for it. A scientist like Dawkins who is unaware or refuses to acknowledge his bias cannot control for it, and will therefore often draw the wrong conclusions. This is exactly what he has done in The God Delusion.


Fr Ant