Saturday, 20 September 2014

Alison Milbank on the "piercing beauty" of the catholic vision

From Alison Milbank's keynote address at last week's Anglican Catholic Future celebration in Southwark Cathedral:

In a purely material universe, how can there be a meta (beyond) the physical? How can a baby be more than a bundle of atoms? And yet every parent knows that a child is more than this. Beauty is at the heart of who we are as Anglican Catholics and we do liturgy with great care and elegance. It will, of course, only be truly beautiful if it is not an end in itself but an offering to God. God really does not care nor an angel fall if a sub-deacon makes the wrong move. Liturgy is in its decadence if concerns like that dominate our thoughts. What we do is seek to come close to the source of all beauty, and beauty, as Dionysius the Areopagite reminds us ‘sheds upon all things her life-giving ray’. Despite Kant’s self-sufficient beauty of the art work, true beauty is always a sign to something beyond itself. From a person to an object to an idea, the beautiful is always symbolic: it is an opening to a deeper beauty that resides in the heart of being.

Our contemporary world is uncomfortable with beauty and art has almost abandoned it. It belongs to a religious universe of meaning in which all things and all people are signs revealing the Divine. So to call people to worship as we do, ‘in the beauty of holiness’ is completely counter-cultural. It is this that gives our witness its power to convert and attract for we all long deep down for the good, the true, the beautiful and their union ...

For the Anglican Catholic future, if it is to be truly catholic must include all that is best of the evangelical tradition too and learn to emulate their evangelistic heart, their devotion to Scripture, their care for the young and enquirers. We need the openness to all truth of the liberal wing of the Church and the faithfulness to context of the rooted, civic or rural parish. But above all we need what G. K. Chesterton called ‘the romance of orthodoxy’, to show the world the colour, excitement and piercing beauty of our own tradition: its physicality, its holiness, its taking of all things into participation with the Divine. It is easy for anyone to miss Christ at the turn of a civilisation. But in the end, as Dostoevsky reminds us, it is only beauty – Christ’s beauty - that can save the world.

Friday, 19 September 2014

"We've heard what happened; let's delve into the mystery": Augustine on the riddle of Scripture

It was these hidden truths that fascinated Augustine.  In his sermons, he moved from one "knotty problem" to another, from one "mystery" to another.  His usual attitude was: Factum audivimus, mysterium requiramus ("We've heard what happened; let's delve into the mystery").  Augustine did not deny that Scripture recorded history.  On the contrary, he solemnly warned that if the events Scripture described had not taken place, then one "would be building castles in the air".  Yet he focused on mysteries because he found these best nourished the "hungry".  As he once noted, there was something about people's psychological make-up that somehow made hidden truths more compelling:

"All those truths which are presented to us in figures tend in some manner to nourish and arouse that flame of love, an impulse which carries us upward and forward toward rest; and they stir and enkindle love better than if they were set before us unadorned, without any symbolism of mystery.  It is hard to explain the reason for this; nevertheless it is true that any doctrine suggested under an allegorical form affects and pleases us more, and is more esteemed than one set forth explicitly in plain words."

Augustine's hearers keenly enjoyed the way he would untie the "scroll-covers" and "unroll" what lay hidden within.  In fact, the more subtle his allegories, the more they cheered.  It intrigued them much as detective stories or courtroom dramas intrigue us ... Augustine always had his eye out for odd clues, for things "covered with a dense mist": exotic place names, strange animals, numbers, double entendres, quirky metaphors.  These he would put under his magnifying glass, for he presumed they opened up unexpected mysteries ...

Augustine believed the obscurity of Scripture befitted the nobility of its origin: "The higher in honour anyone is, the more veils are suspended in his palace."  But Scripture's veils and riddling ways held a deeper purpose: they served as a built-in moral pedagogy.

From William Harmless Augustine and the Catechumenate, p.183ff.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

"Invested with a sacramental office": Newman on Incarnation and word

Following on from yesterday's post on Scott Hahn's essay on Ratzinger, Dei Verbum and the sacramentality of the word, we might consider Newman's reflection on how the Incarnation makes words - and thus the word of Scripture - sacramental:

The doctrine of the Incarnation is the announcement of a divine gift conveyed in a material and visible medium, it being thus that heaven and earth are in the Incarnation united. That is, it establishes in the very idea of Christianity the sacramental principle as its characteristic.

Another principle involved in the doctrine of the Incarnation, viewed as taught or as dogmatic, is the necessary use of language, e.g. of the text of Scripture, in a second or mystical sense. Words must be made to express new ideas, and are invested with a sacramental office.

(H/t Newman Blog)

In other words, reading Scripture and discerning its meaning is akin to seeing the Crucified and discerning the Lord of Glory, seeing the bread and wine and discerning the Body and Blood of the Lord.  It is not a straight-forward, common-sense act.  The act of reading Scripture and discerning the word is a mysterious act, in which appearances alone cannot determine meaning. In cross, eucharist, scripture, deity is hidden and veiled in a surprising, even shocking, manner.  It is the adoring heart - the heart open to Mystery - which discerns this Presence.

In the words of Thomas' prayer before the Blessed Sacrament:

Prostrate I adore Thee, Deity unseen,
Who Thy glory hidest 'neath these shadows mean;
Lo, to Thee surrendered, my whole heart is bowed,
Tranced as it beholds Thee, shrined within the cloud.

"Unseen ... hidest ... shadows ... cloud".  Perhaps nothing so undermines the ability of Scripture to grasp the imagination as the belief that this text is not mysterious, that nothing is hidden, that 'plain reading' grasps the meaning.   'Plain reading' is the stuff of supermarket advertising.  By contrast, it is the very sacramentality of Scripture - that here is "Deity unseen ... shrined within the cloud" - which entices the heart, calling us to discern hidden glory.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

On the sacramentality of the word

From an essay by Scott Hahn in America, discussing the 'sacramentality of Scripture' in light of Vatican II's Dei Verbum.  He begins by reflecting on Ratzinger's contribution to the preparation for the document:

In the years leading up to the Second Vatican Council, the preparatory commission had drafted a document titled “De Fontibus Revelationis.” Many people expected it to be whisked through the approval process shortly after the council began. And why not? The drafters represented a variety of theological and exegetical viewpoints, and they had achieved an admirable consensus on a number of controversial points. The draft did what the drafters thought a council document should do. It prescribed rules, and it issued condemnations. It hewed to the manualist tradition that had defined the mainstream since the Counter-Reformation.

“De Fontibus” was sent out to the bishops in August 1962, in anticipation of the council’s inauguration in October. But a funny thing happened on the way to the council. On October 10, 1962, the very day before the council’s solemn inauguration, a young German peritus, Father Joseph Ratzinger, presented his analysis of “De Fontibus” in a lecture to the German-speaking bishops. His critique was even-toned, fair-minded, thorough—and devastating.

The problems he identified were not tonal or stylistic. They were theological and doctrinal. He argued that the schema had absolutized the manualist tradition. It had confused propositions about revelation with the content of revelation. It represented not abiding truths of faith, but rather the peculiar characteristics of post-Reformation polemic.

Father Ratzinger’s lecture made a profound impression on the bishops. The 16-page text was circulated widely and became the basis of Cardinal Josef Frings’ November 14 oral intervention at the beginning of the debate about “De Fontibus.” From the discussion that followed came “Dei Verbum,” the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, which in its final form fulfilled all the prescriptions of Father Ratzinger.

Father Ratzinger recast the discussion in terms of sacramentality. Through the council and after the council, he would continue his reflection on this foundational point. Father Ratzinger recast the discussion in terms of sacramentality. Through the council and after the council, he would continue his reflection on this foundational point. The culmination of that reflection would indeed be magisterial. What the young theologian had begun in the shaping of “Dei Verbum” would find fulfillment in the seasoned pope’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation “Verbum Domini”—which speaks at length about the “sacramentality of the word.” The same document tells us that the “New Testament…presents the paschal mystery as being in accordance with the sacred Scriptures and as their deepest fulfillment.”
It is in the paschal mystery that humankind encounters this God—present in history, present in liturgy, present in the church. Present in the word; present as the Word.

Hahn then powerfully reminds us that to speak of 'New Testament' is to first refer to paschal mystery and sacrament, not text:

In all of Jesus’s sayings, we find just one instance when he used the phrase we translate as “New Testament,” and he used it to describe neither a will nor a book, but rather a sacramental bond ...

In the text of the New Testament, then, the phrase “New Testament” denotes not a text, but an action—not a document, but a sacrament.

He concludes with a quotation from Benedict XVI:

The sacramentality of the word can thus be understood by analogy with the real presence of Christ under the appearances of the consecrated bread and wine. By approaching the altar and partaking in the Eucharistic banquet we truly share in the body and blood of Christ. The proclamation of God’s word at the celebration entails an acknowledgment that Christ himself is present, that he speaks to us.

A few brief points on excellent essay, given in order of ascending importance.  Firstly, it reminds us that outside of the ecclesial politics of the RCC and the ironically shared perception of RC left and right that he was a 'traditionalist', Benedict XVI was an innovative theologian whose work has deeply enriched contemporary Christian reflection. This was recognised by ++Justin when he praised BXVI as a "creative theological mind".  Secondly, it brought to mind Hooker's reflections on the sacramentality of the act of reading Scripture in the daily office, what his Geneva-school critics - lacking a sacramental and liturgical imagination - condemned as 'bare reading'.  Thirdly, it both points to and suggests a way for catholic Anglicans to model how the church can imaginatively re-engage with Scripture beyond both the rationalisms of biblical criticism and Neo-Calvinism.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

"Dwelling more upon the Mysteries of the Faith": Pusey and the Tractarian vision

Below is an extract from Pusey's Preface to the sermons he preached in St Saviour's, Leeds, during the week after its consecration in 1845.  St Saviour's was designed to be a centre of Tractarian worship, spirituality and teaching.  Here in the Preface, Pusey allows us to glimpse the depth of the Tractarian vision:

He [i.e Pusey referring to himself] has, for many years, had a very deep conviction, that we undergo a very great loss and risk, through not dwelling more upon the Mysteries of the Faith, as brought out in the Nicene and especially the Athanasian Creed. We undergo loss; for it has been observed by S. Augustine, how God, "Who useth to good even the evil," overrules even heresies to the benefit of the Church, in that, in order to defend sacred truth against "the crafty restlessness of heretics," "many things belonging to the Catholic Faith are both considered more diligently, and understood more clearly, and preached more earnestly; and thus the question raised by the adversary becomes an occasion of learning." Especially upon the sacred doctrine of the Holy Trinity, heretical error has been, through the goodness of Divine Providence, of great benefit to devotion, by occasioning the Church, through the aid of God’s Holy Spirit, to clear the many points upon which we might otherwise be in doubt, and thus to enlarge the rich pastures in which the soul might safely range, even while she was drawing a boundary around them, which is not to be passed. We are then losing a portion of our inheritance, if we avail not ourselves of this benefit ...

There seems no reason for withholding that it was the hope of the Editor that, should the blessing of Almighty God rest upon this plan, others might be encouraged to attempt the like, who might be better qualified than himself for that great office, "to preach the Gospel to the poor." Not that there is any thing new in the plan. It was but the employment of the daily services of our Church, daily Communion, frequent Sermons, so as to occupy the minds of those who had leisure, in a series of prayer, hearing of Holy Scripture, meditation on solemn subjects, and the great Act of Christian Worship and Communion, at periods through the day. It was hoped that they who could thus retired to be with their Lord, might return to their duties in the world, with more fervent devotion to Him; while on others, who were less prepared or were unprepared for the whole extent of services so continuous and so sacred, impression, it was hoped, might, by God’s mercy, be made by the solemnity of the subjects preached on ...

On the late occasion [i.e the consecration and subsequent liturgies], God did bless very visibly the solemn services. There seemed, so to say, an atmosphere of blessing hanging around and over the Church. How should not one hope it, when, besides those gathered there, many were praying Him, in Whose Hands are the hearts of men, and Who turneth not away the face of those who seek Him? It was the very feeling of those engaged, that God was graciously in a Heavenly manner present there. He seemed amid the solemn stillness of those services to speak in silence to the soul of each; and many hearts were there by His secret call, and through the Holy Eucharist which we were permitted daily to celebrate, stirred to more resolute devoted service. To Him be the Praise, Whose was the Gift ...

God give us grace more and more to seek Him; so, if we find Him, we shall in Him find each other who shall have sought Him our common Centre; shall in His light and love at length understand one another; shall see in one another he work of His Grace, and love one another in Him, and Him in one another.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Cyprian, Noah and the God who chooses to be mythopoeic

For some eucharistic communities, particularly in the Anglican tradition, Holy Cross Day this year will have been transferred to Monday.  In the Common Worship calendar today is also the lesser feast of St Cyprian.  It seems appropriate, therefore, to attempt to acknowledge both aspects of the day and we can perhaps do so by referring to Cyprian's interpretation of one of those odd passages from the Old Testament, the drunkeness of Noah.  That Cyprian offers his interpretation in the context of condemning those who used water rather than wine in the eucharist only adds to the interesting dimension of this interpretation:

For we find in Genesis also, in respect of the sacrament in Noah, this same thing was to them a precursor and figure of the Lord's passion; that he drank wine; that he was drunken; that he was made naked in his household; that he was lying down with his thighs naked and exposed; that the nakedness of the father was observed by his second son, and was told abroad, but was covered by two, the eldest and the youngest; and other matters which it is not necessary to follow out, since this is enough for us to embrace alone, that Noah, setting forth a type of the future truth, did not drink water, but wine, and thus expressed the figure of the passion of the Lord (Epistle 62.3).

What is the account of Noah's drunkeness about?  What is the significance of this odd story of wine, nakedness, shame?  Cyprian's answer - that it is about the Passion and the Eucharist - will, of course, scandalize those in the academy and the churches, from left and right, who offer rationalist readings.  For exegetes, of left and right, still formed by the canon of the Enlightenment, how on earth could this ancient story possibly be about Passion and Eucharist?  For Cyprian, by contrast, how could it possibly not be?  What Cyprian possesses and what such rationalist readings lack is a Christological imagination, the defining characteristic of much patristic exegesis.

It is a Christological imagination, shaped by the encounter of Incarnation, Cross and Resurrection, by the experiences of prayer, eucharist, and church, which allows us to see the Cross-shaped nature of Israel's story, as our hearts and imaginations are thereby oriented towards the scandal that is so much greater than Noahs - of the wine, nakedness and shame of the Word made flesh.

And so a story we think we know upon hearing it read - Noah, drunk, naked, shamed - becomes something so much greater and so much more compelling, so much stranger than we at first imagined and so much more enticing. 

Noah, drunk, naked and shamed lead us to the scandal of the Holy Cross and the scandal of the Holy Eucharist.  In the scandal of Noah, we better grasp just how scandalous our encounter with the Holy Cross and with the Holy Eucharist actually is.  You think Noah, the hero of the Ark, drunk and naked is a scandal?  Look at God, naked, bleeding and dying on the wood of the Cross.  Taste God's blood in the wine of the Eucharist.

In the words of C.S. Lewis in Myth Become Fact, "we must not, in false spirituality, withhold our imaginative welcome".  He was talking about Nordic mythology.  The delight of the Hebrew Scriptures is that we do not need to be specialists in Nordic mythology for our imaginations to be oriented towards the "God [who] chooses to be mythopoeic".

Sunday, 14 September 2014

"You have not weakened, you have strengthened a thousand times": reading Farrer on Holy Cross Day

On Holy Cross Day, words from Austin Farrer's Lord I Believe: Suggestions for Turning the Creed into Prayer:

Here was a king whose glory was in the dust; here was a conqueror annihilated.  For just look at him.  Yes, look at him; view him well; for his is the King who is most royal through being humiliated; this is the victor who conquers through his annihilation.  This is the commander who says to his opponents:

'You have won all the battles, but you have lost the war.  Surrender to me now.  Your ammunition is all spent; I know, for it is all here, sticking in my heart.  Your last, your irresitible weapon was to have been my death.  You have used it, but you have not stopped me; here I am, still claiming your submission; here I am, still living your souls.  You have hung me here, the picture of a living death; you have not weakned, you have strengthened a thousand times, the pull of your king on the loyalty of your hearts; for see, I die to gain them.

'I came, carrying the flag of peace, and of reconciliation with the God who made you.  You bared my way with swords and dared me to advance; I came straight on, I stuck upon the points, and here I die on them.  You have killed me, but have you killed peace? I leave my flowing blood to plead the cause.  This is where love is almighty, and mercy irresistible, when your creator lays down life, to make his enemies his friends'.