Catholics, like all Christians, are monotheists who believe in the one true God, Creator of heaven and earth; of our small miraculous world, unique in its intelligent life, in the unfathomable mysteries and the immeasurable expanse of our dark, cold universe.
Christians are the children of the Jewish tradition and believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who is the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Christians can admire God’s handiwork in his creation, in the power of the ocean, the extent of deserts, the beauty of the daily sunrise. But these are reflections of God’s creativity, they are not part of God, not immediate parts of his nature.
In the Jewish scriptures, the Old Testament God was known as El or Elohim, as the Jews acknowledged the numinous, moved beyond polytheism, shared to some degree the traditions of the Phoenicians and the Canaanites about the one God, and then God revealed himself to Moses as Yahweh, ‘I am whom I am’ or ‘I am he who is’ (Exodus 3:14), the proper name of the God they were worshipping. Christians today belong to a millennial tradition of belief; we benefit from everything that has been revealed to the prophets and the saints.
The Church teaches that this one true God is Spirit; merciful, all-powerful and ever faithful. God is good and wise, neither cruel nor capricious. God is infinite, without beginning and without end, the all-powerful lord of history, who will oversee the final separation of the good from the bad. Unlike the capricious pagan gods of ancient Greece and Rome, God is interested in us, cares for us, and has told us how to live.
“What is most important however is to remember that God loves every one of us, keeps each one of us in the palm of his hand.”
Christians believe the one God is a Trinity of persons, God the Father, the eternal Source; the Son of God, i.e. Jesus Christ, true God and true man, who showed us by his life and by teaching what God is like, and the Holy Spirit, who lives in the hearts of all the faithful.
God is not the most powerful figure in space and time, the cosmic trigger of the Big Bang. God is beyond space and time. He is Being itself, transcendent, incomprehensible.
No explanation is adequate to explain this Mystery. We are told St Patrick used the three leaves of a shamrock; others have used the three states of water, liquid, ice, steam; still others have compared the Trinity to a family or community, or to a triangle overlaying a circle.
What is most important however is to remember that God loves every one of us, keeps each one of us in the palm of his hand. God is an all-embracing torrent of love, spreading forgiveness and kindness to all, especially those who want to be loved.
The Christian literature across 2000 years abounds in pen-pictures of the Transcendent, evocations of the supernatural, the spiritual.
The most spectacular are from the last book in the Christian Bible, the Book of Revelation about the Prelude to the Great Day of the Lord, the coming of the Heavenly Jerusalem, the One sitting on the throne, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, and the Lamb who had been sacrificed and was worthy ‘to receive power, riches, wisdom, strength, honour, glory, and blessing’ (c. 4).
There are the plagues, the mighty conflict between the woman clothed with the sun and the huge, red dragon with seven heads (c. 12), the angels against the false prophets and slaves of the beast.
And the triumph of the 144,000 virgins, companions of the Lamb, creating ‘a sound coming out of heaven like the sound of the ocean or the roar of thunder; it was the sound of harpists playing their harps’ (c. 14).
The North African St Augustine (354-430 AD), the finest theologian of the first millennium writes in a different key. He was baptised by St Ambrose in Milan at the age of thirty-three, after a long moral and intellectual struggle.
“Give me chastity and continence, but not yet’ (8:7 Confessions). He believed that God ‘made us for yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you.” (1.1 Confessions). Many are still ill at ease today, some despairing, but many do not connect their angst to God’s absence.
In a famous passage, Augustine described his conversion beautifully. “I have learnt to love you late. Beauty at once so ancient and so new… I searched for you outside myself, and disfigured as I was, I fell upon the lovely things of your creation… I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am inflamed with love of your peace.” (Confessions 10.27)
“For the moment, in Australia the number of people without religion is increasing with the no-religion category exploding by 2,200,000 in the five years to 2016 to 30 per cent.”
The Confessions are the first autobiography in Western literature and Augustine writes with a level of insight about himself and the good God, which is worthy of a great novelist such as Evelyn Waugh.
Each of us is destined to encounter the supernatural at the moment of death as Christians do not believe that life ends at death, even for those who are evil.
The 19th Century English cardinal St John Henry Newman combined with the composer Edward Elgar to produce the Dream of Gerontius, a masterpiece ‘awfully solemn and mystic,’ in Elgar’s words, about such a moment.
Gerontius knows he is near to death, chill at heart, with faltering breath and dampened brow, but he rallies:
Raise thou my fainting soul and play the man; And through such evening span of life and thought as still has to be trod, Prepare to meet thy God.
The angels are supportive and the devils are repulsed and Gerontius prays the magnificent hymn:
Firmly I believe and truly God is three and God is one And I next acknowledge duly Manhood taken by the Son.
And he affirms that he loves ‘supremely, solely Him the Holy, Him the strong.’
And so Gerontius tended and nursed by the angels, accompanied by ‘Masses on earth, and prayers in heaven’ comes safely to ‘the throne of Most Highest.’
So may it be with all of us.
The Catholic practices of worship and contemplation are rich and beautiful, embellished by the finest music, outstanding cathedrals, beautiful art and literature. But they are threatened from without and within. For the moment, in Australia the number of people without religion is increasing with the no-religion category exploding by 2,200,000 in the five years to 2016 to 30 per cent. And our Australian situation is not untypical of much of the agnostic drift across the Western world.
In conclusion, I would like to resurrect a forgotten figure from 40 years ago to have the last word: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn whose writings about life in the Soviet prisons, the gulag, helped lay the foundations for the Communist collapse in Russia and Eastern Europe.
He believed that the disasters of twentieth century Russian history occurred because “men have forgotten God”; indeed, he sees this as “the principal trait of the entire 20th century.”
In 1983, he saw the threat to the faith in the Western world. He could have been writing about today. The symptoms of these dangerous threats are “the abandonment of the concepts of good and evil and the rise of hatred.”
“[Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn] believed that the disasters of twentieth century Russian history occurred because “men have forgotten God”; indeed, he sees this as “the principal trait of the entire 20th century.”
“Atheist teachers in the West are bringing up a younger generation in a spirit of hate for their own society.” This was decades before the cancel culture and woke activists.
As a believer, Solzhenitsyn reassured us that “the Creator constantly, day in and day out, participates in the life of each of us.”
This is true even in distant irreligious Australia, the lucky country. We too must realise that “the Divine Spirit moves with no less force” among us also and we too should take Solzhenitsyn’s advice and “reach (out) with determination for the warm hand of God.”
Tony Abbott to launch book – don’t miss out
Tickets are going fast, so make sure you get yours! Christianity Matters In these Troubled Times will be launched by former Prime Minister Tony Abbott on 19 May in Sydney. Register online through the Page Research Centre here.