Meditation Before the Closed Door of Mercy

Dr. Patrick Ryan Cooper

Locked Inside and Out

The doors of mercy are shut closed at this hour, locked from the inside, only to be soon opened on the Feast of the Immaculata.

How ridiculous, pathetic even at first, a man is, who vainly tries to open a closed door that is bolted shut. He is invariably lost and confused. ‘How on earth can I ever get inside?’ he stammers. While farce and whim are generously given to the onlookers close by.

The liturgical sealing of the door─as it was celebrated here on the hill at the Benedictine Archabbey of Saint Meinrad─in this season of Advent, and in view of the jubilee of mercy, is a sober, penitential symbol. For it is we who bolt the door close, from the inside, fearfully refusing the pleas of others; obsessing instead over our own security and autonomy. While the ridiculous man, swearing at the door now deepens in its sad humor when he comes to learn─not unlike those locked from the inside─that it was he, the poor guy, who locked himself out in the first place.

We are continuously reminded of these intolerable truths in the arrival of migrants and refugees along our countless western borders at this very moment, herded before locked doors without any threshold. How quickly the story of their plight has changed in tone over the past few months. And yet, even upon entering, an impenetrable door needs no seal, nor hinge. For it cannot be opened, nor even remotely ajar, for again, the door lacks a threshold; the barrier that lacks crossing, is accursedly abysmal.

For the Christian, this abyss undoubtedly remains, though this abyss is not singular, nor is it the only door that remains closed. As Francis has indicated, this extraordinary jubilee year of mercy begins with the feast of the Immaculata herself, the Mother of Mercy, who Newman pointedly frames[1] as the Janua Coeli [Gate of heaven] as both conduit and its full participant in the commericum of Redemption, uniquely fulfilling Ezekiel’s prophetic words (Ez 44, 1-3) that “The gate shall be closed, it shall not be opened, and no man shall pass through it, since the Lord God of Israel has entered through it─and it shall be closed for the Prince, the Prince Himself shall sit in it.”

Recovering the Depths of Mercy

Francis’ Bull of Interdiction, Misericordiae Vultus, has called for a rediscovery of the richness of mercy, continuously contemplated in the face of Jesus Christ, who uniquely shows the Trinitarian mystery of the Father’s mercy as asymmetric and distinct, yet inseparable from the “fundamental law that dwells in the heart of every person who looks sincerely into the eyes of his brothers and sisters on the path of life.”[2] We need to indeed rediscover both the heights and depths of this inseparability, for there is nothing “condescending” about mercy.

One, who can teach us a great deal about the concretissimum of this inseparability is the mid-20th Century French Catholic Madeline Delbrêl (1904–1964), who founded in 1933 a small équipe, a lay contemplative community that sought to live unabashedly among the poor and working class in Ivry-sur-Seine, then the center of French Communism. Delbrêl writes that in the daily face of sharing genuine brotherly love amid an ideological milieu of totalized immanence,


Everything that is alive, everything that is loved, loses its foundation in being and thus crumbles from within. Everything is swallowed up in nothingness and meaninglessness. But when the life of faith comes into contact with this disaster, it reacts. The Christian examines his Christian life. He asks himself about God, about God’s importance, about God’s place, about how he seeks God’s protection. He then begins to realize how easy it is to lose God in Christian life or to lose him in Christ; and then how easy it is to lose Christ in Christianity; how easy it is for Christianity to continue on at first without God and then without Christ. Finally, he has the vertiginous realization how easily such breakdowns can occur.[3]

Delbrêl’s posthumous writings, We, the Ordinary People of the Streets (Nous autres, gens des rues, 1966) have lost none of its vigor nor relevance over the past decades, for she writes from a fecund, concrete between of inseparability between love of God and neighbor, one that at any moment could, but does not flinch at such vertiginous, dizzying heights, what von Balthasar rightly discerns as her “perfect love of her Communist brother (including common work in all human issues) and a decisive rejection of his ideological program.”[4] It is only in traversing this perilous between that the “Christian receives the gift of the concretissimum of obedience in the following of Christ,”[5], for there is nothing abstract about the superabundance of this between, about the Church in her mystery and its vulnerable extension as the Mystical Body of Christ. Rather,

this passion for God will reveal to us that our Christian life is a pathway between two abysses. One is the measurable abyss of the world’s rejection of God. The other is the unfathomable abyss of the mysteries of God. We will come to see that we are walking along the adjoining line where these two abysses intersect. And we will thus understand how we are mediators and why we are mediators…. We will cease being perpetually distracted: distracted from the world by God, and distracted from God by the world…. But it is on behalf of the world, it is on behalf of each person, of every human being that we will be personally faithful to God, that we will personally place ourselves in the service of his glory─and we will do so, not because of the world, not because of people, but because of the God who loved the world and who loved all people with a first and gratuitous love.[6]

Whether in or out, the door remains locked at this present moment, and in resignation, we are tempted to utter those profound words of Bernanos’ Curé from The Diary of a Country Priest, "Qu'est que cela fait ? Tout est grâce." Yet the difference does indeed remain, if only since there is no crossing the threshold, no commericum, and by Madeline’s example during this upcoming Jubilee Year, we may even learn how to walk this perilous line.

[1] See generally John Henry Cardinal Newman, Meditations and Devotions (Templegate; Springfield, Il 1964) 125-6.

[2] Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, n. 2.

[3] Madeline Delbrêl, We, the Ordinary People of the Streets, trans. David Louis Schindler Jr., Charles Mann (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids/Cambridge, UK., 2000) 194.

[4] Hans Urs von Balthasar, “Preface to the German Edition of Nous autres, gens des rues”, We, the Ordinary People of the Streets (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids/Cambridge, UK., 2000)xv.

[5] ibid, xvi.

[6] Delbrêl, We, the Ordinary People of the Streets, 195.

When Mother became Mary

As part of the series on Laudato Si, this blog is meant as a theological-artistic exploration of the themes of pregnancy and incarnation, themes that suit the time of the year, the advent period. For his drawing, Sander Vloebergs was inspired by the classical icons of Mary and child and the dynamic movement of Nature spiraling around the moment of incarnation. He was inspired by blogs previously written by Julia Meszaros and Patrick Ryan Cooper. This blog is a continuation of the line of thought that started with the previous blogpost on Laudato Si : This sister now cries out to us.

Body and incarnation

Mary, blessed above all women, Queen of the heavens. Sometimes we forget that the Holy Mother is a mother just like us: blessed with the gift of life, a woman between women. She is a created being, transformed by the Life that grows in her, never to be the same as before. She becomes the Image of what creation could be, Mother Nature pregnant of the divine, a material body of Love. More than a celestial appearance, she is a fleshly manifestation of endless love and devotion, an erotic human longing to be completed.

We seem to neglect the materiality of the gift of life when we watch the beautiful icons of Mother and Son. That is why I wanted to visualize the growing life inside Mary’s womb with this drawing. In my creative world the iconic Mary becomes first of all a mother; with a pregnant vulnerable body, spinning around the source of Life. We should not forget that pregnancy and deliverance are first of all bodily phenomena that have a deep existential significance. A child grows in a body. It is this radically transforming body that interrupts the human life, it demands a play of identity as the ‘I’ transforms into a ‘we’. In a way, the bodily creation of new life goes hand in hand with an encounter with death itself as the ego dies in order to resurrect as a mother. The beauty of the tree of life is intertwined with the fragility of human existence as revealed by the crucified body. While life is cherished in the womb, humans become vulnerable, capable of being wounded in a bodily and existential way. The gift of life is a gift of death, a chance to spiritual growth.

Julia Meszaros writes beautifully in her blog on the mysticism of natural childbirth about this spiritual journey. She writes: “ For natural childbirth can serve as a metaphor (and hence a training ground) for the spiritual life, as the great mystics of the Christian tradition have described it. The natural birth of a child ‘undoes’ us; it gives us a glimpse of the meaning of human suffering; and, by driving home to us our creatureliness, it places us before God”. In her blog she puts special emphasis on the pains of labor and the thin line between life and death as this pain makes us aware that our lives hang on a golden thread. The birth pains reveal the fragile nature of human existence and the presence of life in the most vulnerable bodies. Yet those bodies show the most potential to live an authentic human life: open to be wounded and touched by the divine.

Mother of mothers

So we come to the Mother of mothers, Mary who responded with unrestricted love to the presence of God. She accepted the transformative movement of Nature (the natural pregnancy) to harmonize with the wounding Love of God in a way that changed the course of history. Yet we can’t forget that she is a creature of matter, a human body, a Mother Nature in her brightest form. About the necessity of her humanity, Patrick Ryan Cooper writes: “Without the Theotokos, the Incarnate Word would have been merely "similar to us but would not have been perfectly consubstantial" and thus the "God-man would not be my brother". Mary gives Jesus his body and offers him the gift of death and suffering that is existentially intertwined with Life itself.

She is the example par excellence of how a spiritual erotic longing for the Love of God can transform the body and how the pregnant body can change the existence of men. Mary is both active in her seductive devotion and passive in the receiving of the divine. The active dynamics that seduce the God of Love are driven by the praying openness of all humans who carry in them the gift of life. Mary is part of this cosmic movement, she is its crown jewel. In her, the prayer of the earth gets answered, and she, first of all mankind, becomes a temple where creation and Creator can touch.  Mother Mary reveals what Mother Nature can become, what every human could become. She is the mother who became Mary, Queen of Heavens.





Templeton prize awarded to Jean Vanier: From Politics to Love, L'Arche and belonging

Lieve Orye

We live in a society that makes work of joining up while forgetting the work in joining with.


In March, good news spread around the different l’Arche communities in the world. Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, has been awarded the Templeton Prize.  It will be formally presented to him at a public ceremony at the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields in London on Monday, May 18. L’Arche communities are important for showing concretely “the central role of vulnerable people in the creation of a more just, inclusive and humane society”, as the Templeton Foundation website phrases it. Quite often one can find the l’Arche community mentioned in discussions of theological ethics and in theology and disability discussions. Michael Banner, for instance, in Ethics of Everday Life (2014) mentions these communities as an example of ‘alternative kinning’ and notes that ethnography of such a community would help us understand the possibilities of a countercultural form of non-biogenetic kinship (58). Banner also sees them as communities that embody a regard for the suffering other. The one who suffers is not to be a passive recipient of care but is recognized as an active giver whose gifts one must learn to receive (102-3). Here as well Banner insists that it would be necessary to subject L’Arche to the critical ethnographic gaze, to study carefully and closely how it provides a new social topography, a counterpractice to ambivalent humanitarianism (104).  Some key issues are given here: countercultural ‘alternative kinning’ and a plea for ethnography, or rather, a plea for ‘learning from and thinking with’ the concrete l’Arche communities.

Alternative kinning: beyond rights, towards love

‘Alternative kinning’ seems to me a topic high on the agenda in theology and disability and even in theology and ethnography discussions, though it is not often put in these terms. In a previous blogpost Mary McClintock Fulkerson’s reflections on disability and inclusion and/or pluralism were briefly discussed. She as well emphasizes the importance of studying how these take shape in practice and, based on her own participant observation in a multiracial church that also welcomes people from group homes, she sees how practices of inclusion and pluralism still leave the other easily marginalized. She suggests the addition of a new category: “’receiving from the other’ as a crucial element of  real (ecclesial) welcome”. John Swinton (2012), who nominated Jean Vanier for the Templeton prize, says something very similar when he makes a plea to exchange the language of inclusion for that of belonging, or maybe better, to embed the first in the second. “To belong”, he notes, “you need to be missed”(183). The language of disability categorizes and allows the categorizer to stay with and hide safely behind that language and its distancing position; the language of disability and inclusion describes thinly allowing the describer to keep control of the relationship and avoid the call that can be heard as well as the weight of responsibility that can be felt in the thickness of reality. Such language only gives thin terms that lead only to thin inclusion. The step forward, for Swinton, lies again in ethnography, more particularly in Clifford Geertz’s often mentioned distinction between thin and thick description. Where thin description gives only the bare bones of a phenomenon, thick description strives to see the whole of a thing (180). Thin descriptions allow the describer and the reader to keep reality sanitized, removing the real call, the real involvement, the real guilt, but also the real gift, the real encounter. Swinton’s call for a thick description expresses the wish to really see and to belong with the other, realizing that one’s own belonging cannot be full belonging if others are merely included.

Let me thicken this with two pieces of anthropological material to show how the issue of thin and thick description relates to the issue of inclusion versus belonging.

Clifford Geertz’ Thick description and participant observation

At the start of his Balinese fieldwork Clifford Geertz found himself and his wife ignored by the villagers who seemed to be looking through them as if they were not there. He tells in his writings how they felt “as ephemeral and insubstantial as a cloud or a gust of wind” (Lee & Ingold 2006:67). But when, during a police raid on a cockfight they had come to watch, they turned and ran with the rest of the crowd, the situation changed abruptly. Rather than remaining privileged anthropological visitors who simply could have identified themselves to the police, they had accompanied the villagers in their flight. Afterwards, their fieldwork opened out successfully, Geertz noted. Jo Lee and Tim Ingold see this as follows: “With the run, it seems, the anthropologists suddenly came down to earth, were able to make their bodily presence felt, and could thenceforth participate with the villagers in the ebb and flow of everyday life” (idem). Running with the villagers meant that Geertz’s movements and those of the people he was with were grounded in shared circumstances. Walking with them allowed him to get to know them and learn from them.

Or to put it another way, we cannot simply walk into other people’s worlds, and expect thereby to participate with them. To participate is not to walk into but to walk with – where ‘with’ implies not a face-to-face confrontation, but heading the same way, sharing the same vistas, and perhaps retreating from the same threats behind (Idem).

Such participation as joining with is what makes the vast difference between thick and thin description, not the detailedness, nor the articulatedness of it. That such thick description is a challenge becomes clear when in going back home, the ethnographer often soon forgets in his writing up and in his theorizing the walking with and being together or reduces this to a mere means that allowed for the construction of ‘knowledge about the other’.

Alternative kinning as belonging, as joining with

Such forgetting or reduction also lies behind the language of inclusion. I would say with Ingold, - who in The Life of Lines (2015) discusses the vast difference between seeing the world and being human in terms of an assembled, joined up collection of blobs and seeing the world and human becoming primarily in terms of ongoing lines that join and correspond and carry on – that the language of inclusion involves a joining up of people, attempts an assembling of people and things in terms of their interests and needs, whereas the language of belonging involves a recognition that people join together, walk with each other, receive each other as gift. With Swinton and Ingold, we can say that when lives are joined, not joined up, one will be missed. For Vanier, it is the power of loving one another and the sharing of gifts that overcome difference and exclusion. Swinton adds that you belong when your gifts are longed for and that “such longing is not discovered through politics or argument, but only through the gesticulations of God’s love towards human beings as they are embodied within the lives of those who have come to know and love God and who long for the love of God to become the pivot point for the redemption of the world” (183-184).

To understand properly what L’Arche as an example of ‘alternative kinning’ is about, we first have to learn to see the world, human becoming and participant observation not in terms of joining up, intersubjectivity, interaction and inclusion but in terms of joining with, or as Ingold calls it, ‘corresponding’. Within this ongoing world, through participant observation, we might then learn from and with L’Arche communities how in their Christian going on God is present. For Swinton, there is a difference between a thin, self-centered love and a spiritual love that signals the Kingdom through small gestures – gestures, I would say, that again and again invite and take up the invitation to join lives, for the duration of a moment, for the duration of a joint activity, with the promise to be willing to see what comes next in growing together. As Christians, we are called to look away from ourselves and to look to Jesus to find ourselves. For Swinton, such a way of looking at one another through Jesus offers us a thick description of what it means to sit with the marginalized, to befriend the stranger, to offer hospitality to those radically different from one’s self. These words tell us of a thick reality in which the principle of joining up, the principle of likeness, is exchanged for the principle of joining in grace.


Banner, M. (2014) Ethics of Everyday Life. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Ingold, T. (2015) The Life of Lines. Routledge: London.

Lee, J. and Ingold, T. (2006) “Fieldwork on Foot: Perceiving, Routing, Socializing,” in Locating the Field. Coleman, S. and Collins, P. (eds.), Berg: Oxford, pp. 67-86.

Swinton, J. (2012) “From Inclusion to Belonging: A Practical Theology of Community, Disability and Humanness,” Journal of Religion, Disability and Health, 16(2), 172-190.

The photograph was taken in Montreal, 2009. Sans Oublier le Sourire is a French Canadian organization that promotes participation and belonging for its members.

Living together with difference through keeping the future open

By Lieve Orye

As the previous post indicated, the Anthropos research group had the pleasure of having Prof. Schnitter from the University of Plovdiv, Bulgaria and Prof. Adam Seligman from Boston University with us for a few days. Both are involved in CEDAR, Communities Engaging With Difference And Religion. Within CEDAR people from very different backgrounds and communities are brought together during two intensive weeks to learn to ‘live together with difference’. Two elements are crucial in its philosophy and pedagogy: first, differences are important and not to be denied, privatized or aestheticized. Second, to open up a future wherein living with difference becomes not only possible but mutually enriching, the importance of ritual and of creating concrete shared experiences is emphasized. Ritual is seen as a place where people commit to each other, to the world, and to the future in ways that circumvent the need for consensus. The demand for sincerity and sharing a set of meanings and beliefs is seen to be counter-productive. In other words, to live together with difference does not consist in finding ‘common ground’ on an abstract level, in some shared fundamental theory or worldview, but ‘on the ground’, in our daily bodily going on with each other.

Here, paying attention again to Rachel Muers’ Living for the Future (2008), I first want to suggest that more is needed than de-emphasizing beliefs and emphasizing ritual. The question rather is whether beliefs and practices hinder or nurture ‘living together with difference’. Muers shows how this depends on how we bring ‘the future’, and especially the question of how we ‘live for the future’ into the picture of daily bodily going on. Second, I nevertheless support wholeheartedly the shift in attention from shared worldview to our daily bodily going on with each other that Seligman advocates. But here as well, ‘living for the future’ demands a particular way of tending to our social fabric, to the radically ordinary.

Community, difference and future

How are communities, difference and the future interrelated?

“Responsibility to future generations involves forms of self-definition that do not rely on setting one’s own group over against those ‘outside’… If the future of the community itself is treated as a gift, rather than as a product or as threatening ‘fate’, we would expect this to be reflected in the capacity to deal with difference in the present, neither by bringing it under control nor by externalizing it as a threat” (Muers 2008:79-80, 88).

I think a crucial point is made here: our thinking about and living with difference is strongly related to how we think about and live for the future and how the past is allowed to give life to our present and future – or to suffocate the life of that present and future. Both Seligman and Muers, each in their distinctive way, make clear that both to live ‘for the future’ and ‘with difference’ have to do with our daily tending to the social fabric in which we live. Furthermore, it involves a tending to the radically ordinary precisely not in the shape of securing in advance one’s relations to the other while simultaneously trying to control the future. For Christians this means, as Muers points out, that as a community we are to live a kind of life whose future does not depend on its capacity to secure its own duration. To ‘treat our own continued existence, at the expense of others or of the wider environment, as a paramount good’ is misdirected Molech worship that nourishes unsustainable forms of sociality and deathly patterns of existence. Any attempt to frantically construct a road map for the future to be followed by all in order to gain control over it, involves precisely a way of tending to the present that gives rise to suffocating ways of being and suffocating environments. 

Tending the radically ordinary

“Choose life… so that you and your descendants may live” (Deut. 30.19). The quality of the present is important for the future, but in a non-instrumental way. One way to concretize this is by emphasizing intransitive verbs: In commenting on Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians Muers writes

[W]hat brings people together appears to be their participation in a non-instrumental work – a work that takes time, an ongoing labour and toil. …[T]his work has no obviously specifiable purpose external to itself; although it points towards a future (hope in our Lord Jesus Christ) it does not bring that future about. It is simply love’s labour, both labour on the basis of love and labour that makes love real… the relationship to future generations is worked out through time, rather than being given in advance... it is to exist ethically in a way that allows the future to happen” (Muers 2008:40-41).

To greet the other, to share meals, to labour and toil together is “to live out of a future that is given rather than seized” (Muers 2008:76). Anthropologist Tim Ingold seems to confirm this when he emphasizes the importance of intransitive verbs in ‘life embracing’ relational anthropology. Intransitive verbs, such as ‘to hope,’ ‘to grow,’ ‘to dwell,’ are all verbs that express a carrying on, that express the immersion and participation of beings in the currents of the lifeworld. Key here is that such carrying on immersed in the currents of the lifeworld no longer allows for an easy opposition of world and other. Really knowing the other cannot take the shape of othering, a holding at arm’s length to get a good look to see in which category someone fits, but takes the shape of togethering, of an aligning and an attuning to them. For Christians, this involves an opening up of one’s own future to the gift of the other and allowing oneself to be God’s gift in their life.

That such opening up is not simply a mental or spiritual exercise but also wholly a bodily one becomes clear when Ingold with his colleague Jo Vergunst point out a major difference between being face-to-face with someone, which can take the shape of an interview, a doctor’s appointment or a poker game, and going on a walk together. In the first situation, you can see the other in the eye, but you can also see what happens behind the other’s back and use that to your own advantage. It is more confrontational, less companionable. A shared point of view is not so easy to come by. In the second situation, you share a common movement and horizon, you go on together. As they note,

Crucially, walking side by side means that participants share virtually the same visual field. We could say that I see what you see as we go along together. In that sense I am with you in my movements, and probably in my thoughts as well. We can talk within and around our shared vista and the other things we are doing along the line of the walk. Participants take it in turns to carry the conversation on, and when not actually speaking one is nevertheless listening, participating silently in the ongoing flow (Ingold & Lee 2006:80).

‘To walk’ is mostly used as an intransitive verb. ‘To walk together’, it seems to me, might be a good movement and a good metaphor with which to think and live ‘together with difference’. This is clearly demonstrated by Sebastien de Fooz who was present at the workshop on CEDAR and who started the Jorsala project that organizes walks-in-diversity.


Muers, Rachel (2008) Living for the Future. Theological Ethics for Coming Generations, London: T&T Clark.

Ingold, Tim; Lee, J. (2006) 'Fieldwork on Foot: Perceiving, Routing, Socializing.' in Locating the Field: Space, Place and Context in Anthropology. Coleman, Simon & Collins, Peter (eds.), Oxford: Berg.

To those interested in this line of thought, I recommend listening to Tim Ingold's 2014 Huxley Memorial Lecture 'On Human Corresponding'.

Pictures are taken from a soda can thrown into Den burn.

Body Matters – A Workshop on Christianity and the Body

By Julia Meszaros

A few weeks ago, I—like other members of the Anthropos research group—had the privilege of participating in a workshop led by the dance artist and scholar of religion Carol Webster. Focusing on the theme of Body Matters: Somatic Conversations on Christianity, Love, and Justice, Webster took us on a theoretical and practical exploration of the human body’s role in Christian life and thought. Webster began with a short lecture on how St Paul, in her eyes, negotiated the emergent Christian identity in recourse to bodily images, such as that of Christ’s body being eaten (at the Eucharist) and that of the prostitute (as the antithesis of a member of Christ). With this, so Webster argued, Paul gave the body the ambiguous role of both unifying Christians and forever ‘othering’ those who do not fit the Christian understanding of social and moral norms.

Carol Webster image.jpg

Instead of choosing the conventional route of embarking on an intellectual discussion of these bold claims, Webster then let us probe Christianity’s relationship with the body more practically, performatively and experientially. She asked each participant to physically enact (with movement and sound) how he or she presently felt. Our bodily self-expressions were then ‘shared’ in various ways: we were for instance asked to re-enact as well as physically connect each other’s movements and sounds (by having everyone enact their movements together and while touching one another), and to reflect on how we experienced these—at times uneasy and physically challenging—encounters.

Webster continually related these exercises to the relationship between our own identity and our relations with others. How and to what extent, so Webster asked, can we truly remain ourselves while being just and loving towards others—and vice versa. Her thought-provoking underlying hypothesis was that, unless we become conscious of their bodily dimension, both our self-identity and our relations with others are compromised.

While our various experiments did confront us with the fact that our human lives have a profoundly bodily dimension, Webster’s final—and impressive—exercise nonetheless made me doubt quite how central our body is both to our self-identity and our capacity to love. In this exercise, our group was asked to crowd together, such that we occupied the smallest possible amount of space in the room. Finding ourselves in one sweaty and uncomfortable pile, we were asked to reflect on whether we still felt capable of upholding our identity and of loving one another. To contrast this experience, we were then invited to spread out over the room with as great a distance from one another as possible.

As I experienced it, the first case of a crowded space certainly posed a challenge to my self-identity and capacity for love but did not seem to undo this. Love quickly became imperative for survival and took on the concrete meaning of solidarity, interdependence and mutual acceptance. My ability to find a positive bodily identity was nullified to the point that my bodily senses shut down, yet I managed to inhabit an internal place that still felt like ‘me’. My identity, it seemed, had become more spiritual than bodily but nonetheless felt authentic.

In the second case of physical alienation from others, by contrast, bodily self-expression and –identification may have been possible in theory, yet my spirit felt suffocated to the point of incapacitating me as a whole (i.e., also bodily). My physical alienation from others seemed to imply that I could neither be myself nor love others (or myself)—indeed that I was stifled and petrified at the very core of my being.

Ironically perhaps, the attempt to explore myself as body thus seemed to reveal the primacy of myself as embodied (!) spirit. This is not to say that the bodily dimension does not matter to our ability to be ourselves and love others. Far from it—my physical or bodily situation obviously had a deep impact on my sense of self and love insofar as I experienced physical isolation, in particular, as profoundly hazardous. Yet it was striking to me that I experienced my ability to be and to love as relatively divorced from my capacity for bodily self-expression. Indeed, even where any such freedom was taken away, that is, where our bodies were so close that we could not even more them, self-identity and love still seemed possible—possible on a spiritual plane.

Child calls father to fatherhood: An interview

Yves De Maeseneer

You would expect that a religion that professes God as Father is blessed with a rich theology of fatherhood. Interviewed at the occasion of Father’s Day (in Belgium June 8), I have been facing a certain perplexity. What does it mean to be a father? Even our rich Leuven library was not of great help. I share this interview as an invitation to explore the topic further. 

Why do Christians call God Father?

"Jesus taught us to address God as ‘abba’, Aramaic for ‘papa’. As such we respond to the fundamental revelation that each of us is a child of God. In the New Testament stories, God speaks in a direct way only twice: at the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, and at the transfiguration on Mount Tabor. On both occasions, God reveals Godself as Father, using a formula by which Jewish fathers acknowledged their children after birth.

"In Hebrew culture, a man recognized a child at the time when it was brought to him by taking the newborn on his knees and addressing it. You become father by receiving it. Hence, "thou art my beloved Son." (Mk 1:11) According to the Christian tradition, Jesus has opened the way for every human being to be adopted as a child of God.

Are you suggesting that all forms of paternity are fundamentally marked by an adoptive dimension?

"In many cultures, even today, giving birth is a women’s matter. Men typically wait for the child outside. Even if men are present, they experience that the difference between father and mother is the most palpable at birth: the father is standing next to his wife and therefore outside. Already in pregnancy there is a physical bond between mother and child which the father can never have. The relation between father and child is always marked by a distance, which only becomes proximity through word and gesture, when the father commits himself and says ‘You are my child’.'"

Paternity is a choice?

"You become father when you turn toward your child. While the first effort of a mother is to let the child go, the first act of the father is to turn toward it. It is an act in freedom and love, which I experienced as a vocation. The child calls the father to fatherhood."

What do children teach a father?

"Cynicism is a major challenge in our culture. Grown up men are expected to judge reality from a negative a priori. Children show that this cynicism is a lie. My children – now four and two years old – have taught me hope and joy. I think it is this talent for joy and hope, which made Jesus enjoin his disciples ‘to become like a child’.

Jesus also said, "whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me" (Lk 9:48).

"With this statement Jesus invites every Christian to live in the image and likeness of the Father by participating in God’s fatherhood. I think of Henri Nouwen’s famous meditations upon the parable of the prodigal son. After he had identified himself with the youngest ánd the eldest son, he finally discovered that all of us are challenged to become like the merciful father in our relationship with others."

Does the Gospel provide us with a more elaborate role model of the good father?

"No. Joseph is outshone by Mother Mary. Jesus, Peter, John, Paul,… none of them is mentioned as raising children. In the New Testament narratives, father figures are lacking. This lack of father talk is not so surprising – men rarely talk to each other about their fatherhood experiences. Our society has a rich offer of clubs, magazines and websites for moms, but paternity remains in the shade. Christian tradition and theology shares this lack of attention with our culture in general. A detailed reflection on what it means to be a father is still to be developed."

Is it different in the Hebrew Bible, the story of the Jewish patriarchs?

"The German Benedictine Anselm Grün considers the figure of Jacob as the archetypal father. This does not mean you'll learn much in Scripture about how he deals with his children. What you get, is the picture of an unsteady man. Contrary to his twin brother Esau, who is his father’s favorite, Jacob is more of a mama's boy. Yet it is this ‘fatherless’ figure, who has to go the difficult road to become a father. First we see how the young adult tries to become a man by making a career – not eschewing fraud. Crucial is that he has to leave home. Along the way he dreams a dream in which God blesses him with the promise "I'll be with you, wherever you go" (Gen. 28:15). To me this version of God’s name (YHWH) points to the core of fatherhood: the promise to always be there for your children. In this same dream God sent Jacob on his way. Paternity is both: to encourage your children to go into the world, while reassuring them of your assistance.

In fact Jacob really becomes father in the night wrestling with the angel (Gen 32:23-33). This struggle with the insecurities, anxieties and doubts that you experience as a father, Jacob does not win. He shall receive a blessing and an injury. Being a father is to find blessing in order to become a blessing for your children. But with that blessing comes the injury of powerlessness: as a father you do not have your life and that of your children in your hands. Significantly, the injury is at the hip, the place where a person in ancient times put his hand to make an oath. The wounded hip is symbol of weakness and fidelity alike. Fatherhood is about accepting frailty through promise.”

Is not the first duty of the father to establish the law?

"Oddly enough, that aspect is not made explicit in the story cycle of Israel’s patriarchs. Classical psychoanalysis would ascribe to the father the role of legislator, but at crucial moments in life fatherhood is rather about giving space and freedom. The tragedy of an authoritarian father figure is that he denies his children this space and trust. Empirical research among teenagers in our own time has shown that in many Western families it is rather the mother who is experienced as guaranteeing order – her strictness being most effective because it is typically combined with emotional warmth. Today’s father is often the one who plays with the kids and helps them explore the limits."

Children grow up. Fatherhood is also releasing?

"The father is left behind and has to let his children go. That too is an important aspect of the parable of the prodigal son. As at birth the father had to bridge a distance which is not there for the mother, he is also the parent who has to encourage the children to go and leave home. It seems often easier to let go for fathers than for mothers. The real challenge for fathers is rather not to distance themselves too much, and to keep on being there for their children.”

(English translation of an interview by Kris Somers, in the Catholic weekly Tertio, June 4, 2014. Read the complete file on paternity


The Beatific Vision through Blurry Eyes: Natural Childbirth and our Spiritual Condition

Julia Meszaros

Contemporary Western hospitals offer – and at times impose – an ever growing range of medical interventions to the labouring mother. These are sometimes life-saving. Yet they often also come with risks that should preclude unreflective usage. In light of this, a small but growing number of young parents and parents-to-be are rediscovering the beauty and the benefits of natural childbirth – that is, of seeking to allow one of human life’s most integral and mind-blowing events to take its natural course. Alongside certain health benefits, this rediscovery, I wish to suggest, is of direct significance from the perspective of theological anthropology. For natural childbirth can serve as a metaphor (and hence a training ground) for the spiritual life, as the great mystics of the Christian tradition have described it. The natural birth of a child ‘undoes’ us; it gives us a glimpse of the meaning of human suffering; and, by driving home to us our creatureliness, it places us before God.

Nativity  by William Blake

Nativity by William Blake

The birth of a child begins perhaps with excitement, perhaps with fear, but in any case with pain. At the beginning, one might still be oblivious of the extent to which this pain will gradually undo one of our most cherished dispositions – that of being in control, and of being able to withdraw from whatever threatens our autonomy. Even the pain seems, initially, to be what we want, what we have long been waiting for. In a sense, we still ‘possess’ our body. As labour progresses, however, our posture of self-control increasingly crumbles. What we begin to experience is something we have not signed up for at all. The indescribable scope of the pain that simply overcomes us is entirely unexpected and uninvited. We are faced with something we are sure we cannot shoulder. Like when reaching a new stage in the spiritual life, we want to run away, for the sake, it feels, of preserving our very life. (This is where, in an un-induced childbirth, the first medical intervention – the epidural – usually comes in).

In order to continue the process naturally there is, as any midwife will (in one form or another) confirm, only one strategy: to let go. To let go of being in command, to let go of the need to maintain a dignified appearance, to let go of our attachment to comfort and the picturesque, and above all, to let go of our human rationality, which tells us that it is impossible. Instead of fearing for our life, we are called to trustingly place our life in the hands of God. We may feel that we may not make it. More viscerally than ever before, we become aware that our life is not our own, that everything hinges on God’s will. To this we can now only surrender, humbly and hopefully.

Such a profound act of self-surrender does not in any way put an end to our suffering. Yet it brings with it an unknown peace that makes the suffering bearable, even as it gets greater still. And in allowing us to hand ourselves over to the present moment, it allows us to meet Christ crucified, there with us: fragile, aching, undone.

And just as we have entered into this fellowship most deeply – everything is miraculously made new! We are met by new, unknown life, and a sense, not merely of relief, but of an unknown, perfect bliss. In the matter of an instant, the pain that was is cast into oblivion and we are overcome by an unspeakable awe and love that extends to all the world, to the unknown creature before us, as much as to our spouse and companions, and the nurse who only just popped in to the room.

This, then, is how life comes into the world. In experiencing the birth of a child, we are blessed with a spiritual lesson. If we let ourselves in for it (and provided, of course, that we encounter no complications), we are given a glimpse of how and why to enter into the abyss. We are taught, almost by force, a self-surrender that is entirely antithetical to our worldly disposition, yet that allows us to meet Jesus, who has come so that we may have life (John 10:10). Indeed, in giving birth to a child we receive nothing less than a foretaste of the beatific vision.

All things being equal, then, the pain and labor of natural childbirth can be a spiritual blessing and resource. It teaches us that, with God, all is possible and that, from our suffering, new life can spring. For this reason alone, we must continue to aspire to and value natural childbirth. For, if we believe in life after death, then our positive experiences of suffering in the context of giving birth might give us hope also with regard to suffering in the context of approaching death. 

The Church and Human Rights – an anthropological challenge


Julia Meszaros

The Catholic Church has made a name for itself as an advocate of human rights. For long, it was, to be sure, skeptical, even antagonistic to the emerging human rights discourse. Pope Gregory XVI had decried the right to liberty of conscience as an ‘absurd and erroneous opinion, or rather insanity,’ a view shared also by his successor Pius IX. The freedom of conscience and of religion, as well as free speech and free press, were all rejected by the Church. Yet with Pope Leo XIII there emerged a gradual change of perspective, an opening to the world and its concerns and discourses, that enabled the Church’s increasingly large role in the articulation and promotion of human rights. The Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, advisor of both Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI, famously played a central role in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and wrote the foreword of the same. The Church explicitly endorsed human rights in the encyclical Pacem in Terris of Pope John XXIII (1963) and embraced the human right to freedom of religion in the second Vatican Council’s Dignitatis Humanae (1965). Since then, it has been so vocal an advocate of human rights that Pope John Paul II was asked to address the United Nations on the occasion of the 50 year anniversary of the Universal Declaration.

However, the Church’s relationship with human rights does not lack ambiguity. Despite calling the nations of the world to sign the declaration of human rights, the Holy See has not done so itself. And while ecclesial canon law lists the ‘duties and responsibilities’ of the faithful, it lacks a declaration outlining the inalienable and universally possessed rights of the individual. Moreover, while the second Vatican Council’s defense of the dignity and freedom of the human individual follows the line of reasoning that undergirds the UN Declaration, it does not adopt the latter’s secular phraseology. Most importantly, perhaps, there appears to be a gap between the Church’s advocacy of human rights in the world and its respect of human rights in its own, inner affairs.

Such at least was the assumption of a recent conference on the Church’s implementation of human rights 50 years after Pacem in Terris: The Church, this critique suggests, falls short of its own insight that, as Walter Kasper has put it, ‘if we understand the Church as the institution of Christian freedom, its task should be to stand up for human rights within the Church and outside of it as the fundamental precondition of Christian freedom.’[1] The Church’s failure to enable the individual’s democratic participation in Church politics, its rejection of freedom of conscience in the secular sense of the term, its limitations on the speech of theology professors and its failure to come anywhere near contemporary understandings of gender equality constitute only some of the Church practices that are often perceived as violations of human rights on the part of the Church. As such, they undermine the Church’s credibility, and hence compromise her ability to mediate in international conflicts that violate human rights. The perceived discrepancy between the Church’s stance on human rights ad intra and ad extra increasingly creates tensions also with the modern state and its attempt to ensure respect for human rights: calls for state interference in Church affairs are arguably bolstered by the Church’s seeming inability to live up to its own standards.

Whether or not we share the view that various aspects of the Church’s inner structure and practices violate human rights, we must note that they, at the very least, sit uneasily with a host of the human rights the Church advocates in the world. Indeed, the very perception of an inconsistency between the Church’s stance ad intra and ad extra can be seen as a reflection of the Church’s own unclarity about its position with regard to human rights as they are currently being proclaimed and endorsed.

What does this unclarity consist in? As I would suggest, the Church champions the dignity and inviolability of each and every human person, yet struggles to convey this in its own traditional language. It is in the face of this communicative impasse and a general opening of the Church to the world, that the Church has been on a keen lookout for new ways of defending some of its core beliefs about the human person and their moral implications. This is one factor in the Church’s endorsement of human rights. At the same time, it seems that the Church remains uneasy about the plurality of principles undergirding the concept of human rights. Despite Jacques Maritain’s eloquent defense of it, the pragmatism underlying the drafting of the Universal Declaration always sat ill with the Church’s universalizing tendency and its missionary spirit. The ever growing list of (increasingly contradictory) human rights seems to cast further doubt on the sustainability of embracing human rights on different principles. It is, indeed, hardly obvious whether, when speaking of human rights, Church and world even have in mind the same subject. This is complicated by the fact that the Church is struggling to formulate a contemporary account of the human being, while many other signatories of the Declaration are skeptical of (and hence uninterested in) the mere attempt to  develop a systematic answer to this question. Hence, it remains unclear, for instance, to what extent the idea of human rights can or cannot be separated from the kind of modern notion of human autonomy that Veritatis Splendor (1993) rejects (VS 46). (This may be one reason why the Church today seems more sympathetic to social rights as opposed to political rights, where the divisive issue of human autonomy becomes most pressing).

If the contemporary Church has an uncertainty regarding the question of whose rights we are even talking about, it seems hardly more confident regarding the concept of rights itself. In imagining the societas perfecta, and hence the kind of humanity we must strive to foster, the Church has arguably taken recourse to a language of Love more than to one of rights – a tendency perhaps exacerbated by the modern crisis of natural and, to some extent, canon law(neither of which enjoys particular respect among contemporary theologians). The Christian ideal, one might say, is not one of mutually recognizing one’s rights but of being united in the Spirit, who is Love. Such an account does not, of course, rule out the notion of rights but has trouble elevating this to the status of an ideal. In effect, however, it arguably obstructs its own cause: without the mutual respect of one’s rights, neither freedom nor love will take root.

If the Church wishes to continue its advocacy of human rights in the world, it must clarify its stance towards them also in respect to its inner life therefore. This arguably requires a creative appropriation of the concept in relation to Christian anthropology and to the Church’s natural law tradition, without which the idea of human rights might never have come underway.

[1] Walter Kasper, Theoloische Bestimmung der Menschenrechte im neuzeitlichen Bewusstsein von Freiheit und Geschichte, in Johannes Schwartlaender (Hg.) Modernes Freiheitsethos und christlicher Glaube. Beitraege zur juristischen, philosophischen und theologischen Bestimmung der Menschenrechte, Muenchen 1981, 285-302, 301-302.


Public Role of the Church: Justice or Love?

Vincent van Gogh,  The Good Samaritan

Vincent van Gogh, The Good Samaritan

Ellen Van Stichel

If one wants to discuss the public role of love within Christian theology, one cannot escape the question of the relationship between love and justice. For rather than love, justice is generally conceived as the public virtue. Within the Christian tradition, however, the Gospel message focuses on love. Hence, should not the public role of Christianity be identified with love as expressed in the 7 works of mercy and exemplary shown in the parable of the Good Samaritan? One cannot deny that this kind of charity belongs to the core business of our faith. But has not a one-sided focus on love as charity often resulted in so-called ‘agapism’, which is very good in treating the symptoms of social issues by fulfilling immediate needs, without having to deal with the structural causes grounding these problems?

What is often minimalized in this ‘agapist’ approach is the importance of justice in Christianity. A mere glance into the writings of the prophets in the First Testament immediately shows the importance of justice for the Jewish people. Amos, for instance, famously reacts against well-intended offers by the Jewish people if they are not accompanied by acts of justice, understood as care for the anawim, the excluded (i.e. the poor, the widows, the orphans, etc). In fact, the harsh distinction between justice and love/charity seems to be a particular interpretation; for, as the biblical scholar John Donahue (1977) has argued, “[t]he traditional contrast between obligations in charity and obligations in justice is foreign to the Bible.”

Besides the Bible, Catholics can also refer to their social teachings, which have emphasized the importance of justice from their official beginnings in the 19th century. That justice should be realized within society is unquestionable; whether it also belongs to the task of the Church to make this happen, however, is the object of debate. Inspired by Latin-American developments, the synod of bishops of 1971 was very clear: supporting the Jewish idea that liturgy without acts of justice is insufficient, the bishops firmly stated that “action on behalf of justice is a constitutive element of preaching the Gospel.” Quite some ink has flowed on the meaning of ‘constitutive’ here, but I would stand with those who see justice as an essential characteristic of Christian faith and thus as part of the mission of the Church.   

Moreover, the bishops laid the groundwork for a particular concept of justice that was later much elaborated upon by the US Bishops in the letter on the economy (1986), a letter with sustained relevance for today.  The synod introduced the idea of justice as participation in Catholic social teaching. It is not enough to ensure one’s needs are met or respected, they argued. Rather, we should consider whether all have the opportunity to participate in society as political, social and cultural actors. Do people have access to the global economy? And if so, in what way? Do they belong to their political society? In fact, this notion of justice as participation is nothing else than updating Amos’ call: include into society the excluded.


All this may seem very abstract, but during the expert seminar on Politics of Love, Leo Penta sketched for us how this might look in practice with a concrete example: the German movement of broad-based community organizing. His main challenging question was “how can diverse people in and through their civic groups and institutions act collectively in the public arena for the common good over the long term?” By building relationships, this community organizing aims to bind people who can then act politically in search of justice.

From a theological-anthropological point of view, what is interesting here is Penta’s view on personhood. One the one hand, the project is realistic enough to realize that self-interest is at the basis of the involvement of concrete persons: it is because they are worried about something, or find themselves in a particular situation, that they are looking for relationships which can help them. Because they are on their own, they lack the necessary political power to resolve their problems. On the other hand, relationality is considered as ‘constitutive’ of the human person, which makes them also willing to undertake this collective action. In this context, “actively building relationships across boundaries” is considered as “an act of public love”. In contrast to many civil society actors, community organizing does not start from a single issue, but from the need to build relationships in order to gain collective empowerment. Penta summarized this in the notion of “enabling community”: it is the community as such that needs to be enabled; but at the same time, it is the community which enables. Its end goal is exactly the participation and inclusion of outsiders, such as ‘immigrants, disabled and disenfranchised persons’. For this reason, community organizing is an example of the Church actively participating in the struggle for justice while giving flesh to its mission of love.

Maybe things should not be so black and white. We cannot ignore the amazing results and implications of this focus on short-term loving acts for society, as the majority of current public services in the field of health care and education arose from Christianity through its religious congregations and orders. And although they fulfill certain (immediate) needs, one can hardly hold that these are mere acts of charity, considering their structural consequences for those who benefit from them. On the other hand, there will always be ‘tears which the bureaucracy won’t see,’ such that love, as seeing the face of the other in its particularity through the structures, will always be necessary. 

Ellen Van Stichel is a post-doctoral researcher at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies (KU Leuven) and member of the Anthropos research group.  

The Political Problem of Christian Love

Jared Schumacher

The relationship between Christian love and political problems is complex. It seems natural to address the complexity by first seeking to answer the fundamental question: Is agapè relevant to political life?  

Zak Benjamin     Come Dine

Zak Benjamin

Come Dine

But to do this, I would argue, presupposes two fundamental definitions that are in no way obvious:  namely, what is Christian love (and how might it relate to other "loves"), and what is a polis?  All-too-often, definitions for these essential words are assumed rather than elaborated by those seeking to reconfigure theology and its relation to politics.  The practical outcome of this habitual omission is that the relationship is construed according to an unannounced cache of meaning, incapable of being fully understood and, when necessary, scrutinized. 

Perhaps this is why it is so refreshing to read pre-modern "political" theologians.  Because their primary emphasis was on the communication of what they understood to be the truth,  their concern to be overt about their meanings is ostensible.  For example, in his classic De Civitate Dei, Augustine of Hippo stridently defines both Christian love and the polis.  Interestingly, they are essentially and definitionally related.

De Civitate Dei, Book 14 Chap. 28

Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord. For the one seeks glory from men; but the greatest glory of the other is God. 

For Augustine, love is the foundational movement of city life.  This means that there is no such thing as a loveless city.  The theo-political question par excellence is, rather, what/who we love, as this determines the tenor of our political lives.  For Augustine, the truly public thing (res publica) is the City of God, whose rightly ordered love of God and his creation organizes all of life.  The city of man, in contrast, organizes itself according to a perverted notion of glory, securing for itself a temporary order based on merely human achievement.  This city is disordered to the extent that love of self to the exclusion of God is the binding agent of its polity.  

augustine CoG.jpg

From this definition of polis as a public thing 'devoted to glory, united in love', two crucial elements arise for an Augustinian political theology.  The first is that love is essential to all cities, both terrestrial and divine.  Again, there is no loveless city. And second, that there are a duality of irreconcilable cities.  The city of God cannot be collapsed into the city of man, and vice versa, because this would radically reorganize the foundational love at the core of the enterprise of the public thing. For Augustine, Christian love is the center of the City of God. Precisely because the love which organizes the earthly city is finally irreconcilable to this love, it must - as all earthly things must in the end - pass away.  In relation to the earthly city, then, Christian love is a political problem to the extent that it is unable to be fully integrated into a merely terranic life.  Those who set themselves apart from Christian love to expedite political agendas can only view it with suspicion. 


One recent example of this suspicion is Vincent Lloyd's recent book, The Problem with Grace: Reconfiguring Political Theology.   As he sees it, the traditional theo-political account (read: Augustine's) is problematic to the extent that it wounds the structural integrity of material reality, denigrating it with pipe-dreams of a better world.  He argues that what is needed is a greater appreciation for "the ordinary", which seems to mean 'the world as it is.'  What he calls "the supersessionist logic" of the traditional account is at the heart of what is wrong with confessionally Christian politics, in the way that it sullies the ordinary.  He therefore offers to "reconfigure" political-theological language of its supersessionism, to make it more faithful to the ordinary.  Unsurprisingly -  given its centrality in Augustine's account and the greater Christian tradition - he begins with love.   It is quite difficult to offer a brief summary of his own account of love, but at its core is the attempt to immanentize love, to make it a matter between consenting individuals, who for ordinary reasons decide to work out the messiness of human life together.  

Certainly Lloyd offers us no systematic account of human love, no doubt because such an account could only be supersessionist. His primary concern is to pull down the traditional theological accounts of love because these he finds politically oppressive; and at the end of the day, this is precisely what makes him a political pragmatist.  Thus, he wants to bend christian love (and the entirety of its theological heritage) through his "ordinary" prism, because it is politically expedient to do so.  

If man is merely a political animal, as Aristotle famously declared, then Lloyd's is a reasonable attempt to undermine the oppressive artifice of transcendental love;  in short, it is a rational attempt to overcome the messianism or indifference which Christian love has been known to inspire.  However, if - as Christians believe - man is a more-than-political animal, a being whose creation in Imago Dei calls him beyond himself to a life which can only be described as eternal, then Lloyd's political anthropology of love doesn't undermine false idols so much as neuter humanity's capacity to reflect the divine.  

What should be cherished in his account is the attempt to rid Christianity of oppressive logics which have all-too-often enslaved Christian devotion, bending it towards merely immanent ends.  But the attempt to severe man's capacity for transcendental reference might be just the thing that prevents the overcoming of human brutality.  Only a transitory love of the ordinary, hallmark of Augustine's depiction of the City of God on pilgrimage through this world, can inspire men and women to do extra-ordinary things, for example, to become a true res publica - the Kingdom of God.

What is shrewd in Augustine’s account - and here might be room for partial raproachment with Lloyd - is his concern to detail the ‘messiness’of life this side of eschatological fullfilment.  Augustine’s ecclesiology, unlike that of Robert Bellarmine, is not perfectionist.  Rather, the church is a corpus mixtum, a mixed body, full of wheat and tares. Moreover, the temporal goods of the earthly city, though transitory, really are good according to Augustine.  This is why he can say of this earthly city, in Book 19.26:

Yet even this people has a peace of its own which is not to be lightly esteemed, though, indeed, it shall not in the end enjoy it, because it makes no good use of it before the end. But it is our interest that it enjoy this peace meanwhile in this life; for as long as the two cities are commingled, we also enjoy the peace of Babylon. For from Babylon the people of God is so freed that it meanwhile sojourns in its company.  And therefore the apostle also admonished the Church to pray for kings and those in authority, assigning as the reason, “that we may live a quiet and tranquil life in all godliness and love.” And the prophet Jeremiah, when predicting the captivity that was to befall the ancient people of God, and giving them the divine command to go obediently to Babylonia, and thus serve their God, counselled them also to pray for Babylonia, saying, “In the peace thereof shall you have peace,” Jeremiah 29:7 — the temporal peace which the good and the wicked together enjoy.

Ordinary life, life on pilgrimage, is full of wheat and tares.  Both authors agree on this.  The fundamental difference is that Lloyd sees fit to pitch his tent in the ordinary, while Augustine recapitulates the scriptural vision of a love which moves humanity to extra-ordinary heights.  


This post is an excerpt of a paper given at the workshop Politics of Love? Christliche Liebe als politische Herausforderung (org. Anthropos Research Group and Katholische Akademie Berlin), Berlin, 21-23 March 2013.

Politics, Love and the Inner Life

Julia Meszaros

What, if any, is the role of Christian love in the political sphere? Where politics is understood as the Machiavellian effort of securing power over others, of erecting barriers rather than of breaking them down, the answer is, most likely, ‘none’. The case is similar where Christian love is deemed to obstruct a Nietzschean will to power, where it is seen to breed nothing but weakness and resentment. Is Christian love not inherently paternalistic, as the problematic implications of traditional forms of development aid might suggest?

Even a more favourable view of Christian love does not amount to its political relevance. Christian love, like other moral and religious convictions, is, so contemporary manifestations of liberalism tend to imply, a private matter. Good citizenship, so this argument would imply, rests on whether we hold to the principles of freedom and justice, keep the law, and cast our vote.

Indifference as a failure of love


Yet, can these important ‘public’ acts and commitments be separated from my ‘private’ life, from my interior disposition and, more particularly, from Christian love? The fact that the default mode in which we live our lives is one of indifference towards the other suggests otherwise. Retreating, by and large, into the private sphere of work, homes and cars, we typically vote only according to our own immediate (especially financial) interests; we have a flippant relationship with the law (tax law being a prime example); and we often look past the old, the sick and the homeless. These tendencies slowly but surely undermine our political structures and principles in a way that inevitably damages first of all those who are most vulnerable. 

And this, I now want to suggest, is because our sins of political indifference and materialistic individualism constitute nothing less than failures of love. They manifest a lack of passionate concern for the other and for the Good that unites all human persons. And it is for this reason that they present an almost insurmountable political challenge. For love cannot be politically enforced.

Love’s ground in the inner life

Interior Castle.jpg

One reason for this is that love, like its opposite, indifference, consists in a particular disposition towards the world. As much as it is an act, love implies a valuation of and delight in the other, a profound longing for the other’s well-being. And as such, love is inseparable from a particular inner life—from the cultivation of truthful perception for instance and of our conscience and, ultimately, of a life of prayer. For love is ultimately rooted in a love of Love itself—in that Spirit of Love which animates our own love.

The inner life as a political challenge

The political importance of our inner lives that follows from this is one of the modern state’s greatest challenges. For contrary to socialism’s assumption that the political sphere can foster, even produce, the kind of persons it needs for its own vitality (on the principle that a good society makes good individuals), love is not learnt through political programmes and policies but only through love itself—that is, through free relationships of love. And contrary to contemporary political liberalism, a state religion of neutrality and disinterestedness is likely to foster a hazardous sense of the political irrelevance of the inner life. 

What, then, is the political realm to make of the fact that love and, with it, the individual person and their inner life, form the inevitable foundation of a vital society? How can we acknowledge the political relevance of our inner lives without giving up on our liberal principles of freedom and toleration?


An albeit rather personal response to this difficult question was, perhaps, offered by the new Pope Francis, minutes after his election. After greeting the cheering crowds, the Pope, a powerful leader, bows before them. And before giving them his blessing, he asks them to pray for his blessing. And rather than asking them to say the ‘Our Father’, he asks them to pray in silence, thus underling the simultaneously communal and individual nature of prayer. This act of humility is at once a political act and an act of love: the leader places his trust in his flock and unambiguously affirms the importance of each individual and his or her inner life of prayer and of love, for the whole. In doing so, Francis boldly proclaimed that even in a world tormented by war and poverty the individual’s turn inwards, Augustine’s reditum ad cor, is no luxury. Indeed, it is the first step towards building the fraternity of the true polis.

This post is an excerpt of a paper given at the workshop Politics of Love? Christliche Liebe als politische Herausforderung (org. Anthropos Research Group and Katholische Akademie Berlin), Berlin, 21-23 March 2013.

Julia Meszaros is a post-doctoral researcher at the K.U. Leuven and a member of Anthropos, a research group in theological anthropology.

Political Animals With Love?

Yves De Maeseneer

When he received the Nobel Prize for the European Union (EU), the Christian-democratic politician Van Rompuy admitted that the EU has brought the art of compromise to perfection. ‘Boring politics is the price to pay for peace.’ However, this pragmatism was interrupted by a moment of passion:

 “To me, what makes it so special, is reconciliation. In politics as in life, reconciliation is the most difficult thing. It goes beyond forgiving and forgetting, or simply turning the page. To think of what France and Germany had gone through, and then take this step. Signing a Treaty of Friendship [Paris, 1963]. Each time I hear these words – Freundschaft, Amitié –, I am moved. They are private words, not for treaties between nations. But the will to not let history repeat itself, to do something radically new, was so strong that new words had to be found.”

(speech Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Council, Oslo, 10 December 2012)

New words that connect politics and love, but what kind of love is driving Europe… To me the paradigmatic image to think about the paradox of love and politics is to be found in the old cathedral of the French town Vézelay.

Bernard Pic.png

Behind you see a statue of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, the twelfth century mystic of love who wrote an influential comment upon the Song of Songs. And the one who he gave in Vézelay, 1146, a famous sermon in the presence of the king of France, convincing the political powers of his time to go to Jerusalem for a second crusade. Take up your cross, all united against the infidel enemy.

In front of him a rude piece of wood. The plaque reads as follows:

"1946 - Europe emerged from the Second World War destroyed and ruined. "Christians needed to gather in prayer to overcome the forces of hate which had destroyed the world" in celebrating the anniversary of the preaching of the Second Crusade. The pilgrimage was an event of forgiveness and peace-making. Fourteen wooden crosses were carried along the roads from England, Luxembourg, Belgium Switzerland, Italy and different departments of France converging on the basilica.

Certain German prisoners held in a camp in the vicinity of Vézelay asked to join the procession. Hastily, a fifteenth cross was made from the roof beams of bombed houses. This became a powerful symbol of reconciliation for the world. 30,000 people gathered at Vezelay. During this event, Vezelay became a place of prayer for reconciliation and a peaceful Europe."

A moving story of reunion and sacrifice. I have been told that some of the pilgrims volunteered to stay in the camp, taking the German prisoners’ place during the time of the procession. It is hard to assess how much this Crusade of Peace, beginning of a movement later continued under the name ‘Pax Christi’, contributed to a decisive shift in European history. The contrast between Bernard and the Cross of Reconciliation gives us to think about that strange creature we are, political and called to love.

This post is an excerpt of a paper given at the workshop Politics of Love? Christliche Liebe als politische Herausforderung (org. Anthropos Research Group and Katholische Akademie Berlin), Berlin, 21-23 March 2013.