Saturday, 26 July 2014

"Something more than earthly": the sacramental and re-enchantment

And what is true of the ordinary services of religion, public and private, holds in a still higher or rather in a special way, as regards the sacramental ordinances of the Church. In these is manifested in greater or less degree, according to the measure of each, that Incarnate Saviour, who is one day to be our Judge, and who is enabling us to bear His presence then, by imparting it to us in measure now. A thick black veil is spread between this world and the next. We mortal men range up and down it, to and fro, and see nothing. There is no access through it into the next world. In the Gospel this veil is not removed; it remains, but every now and then marvellous disclosures are made to us of what is behind it. At times we seem to catch a glimpse of a Form which we shall hereafter see face to face. We approach, and in spite of the darkness, our hands, or our head, or our brow, or our lips become, as it were, sensible of the contact of something more than earthly. We know not where we are, but we have been bathing in water, and a voice tells us that it is blood. Or we have a mark signed upon our foreheads, and it spake of Calvary. Or we recollect a hand laid upon our heads, and surely it had the print of nails in it, and resembled His who with a touch gave sight to the blind and raised the dead. Or we have been eating and drinking; and it was not a dream surely, that One fed us from His wounded side, and renewed our nature by the heavenly meat He gave.

John Henry Newman "Worship, a Preparation for Christ's Coming" in Parochial and Plain Sermons, Vol. 5, quoted in Timothy P. O'Malley Liturgy and the New Evangelization: Practicing the Art of Self-Giving Love.

Friday, 25 July 2014

What does re-enchantment look like?

I was sitting in the nave of the parish church as the liturgy was being said. I found myself continually looking at the stained glass window at the back as well as a relief of the Last Supper which was bookended by two angels. It made me think about how little we consider angels, or at least how little I consider them. Again, in much of my upbringing we limited our knowledge of angels solely to the text of Scripture and often ended by saying, they’re a bit of a mystery and Jesus is more important anyway. I started thinking about John Milbank’s interview at Big Ideas from several years ago. John says at one point in the interview, ‘I mean, I believe in all this fantastic stuff. I’m really bitterly opposed to this kind of disenchantment in the modern churches, including I think among most modern evangelicals. I mean recently in the Nottingham diocese they wanted to do a show about angels, and so the clergy – and this is a very evangelical diocese – sent around a circular saying, “Is there anyone around who still believes in angels enough to talk about this?” Now, in my view this is scandalous. They shouldn’t even be ordained if they can’t give a cogent account of the angelic and its place in the divine economy.’ As I thought about theirs and continued to participate in the liturgy, I found myself staring into the eyes of Christ at the top centre of the window at the back of the nave.

I closed my eyes and as often happens when we close our eyes after looking at something through which light was shining, the outlines of the window remained with me. This alone is a rather brilliant picture of what role angels and the saints play (as well as icons and stained glass windows), they shine forth the light of God. Suddenly, with my eyes closed, the number of shadows began to multiply. I saw myself surrounded by these shadows and I knew that what I was being shown were the saints and angels that are always around us, always watching over, praying for us, and guiding us in Christ through the Holy Spirit to the Father. The vision, as shadowy as it was, was overwhelming in its majesty. My heart began to race; my chest felt as though there were something very heavy pressing down upon it. I nearly began to weep right there in the middle of the service.

From Letters from the Edge of Elfland.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

"A new music, long unknown": how Keble 'made strange'

Newman's reflections on the significance of Keble's Christian Year - taken here from the excellent Newman site of the University of East Anglia - are an exploration of how Keble captured the imagination of contemporary English culture with his poetic meditations on the liturgical year:

The Christian Year made its appearance in 1827. It is not necessary, and scarcely becoming, to praise a book which has already become one of the classics of the language. When the general tone of religious literature was so nerveless and impotent, as it was at that time, Keble struck an original note and woke up in the hearts of thousands a new music, the music of a school, long unknown in England.

Newman pointed to two truths which Keble's "creative mind" expressed in The Christian Year:

The first of these was what may be called, in a large sense of the word, the Sacramental system; that is, the doctrine that material phenomena are both the types and the instruments of real things unseen,—a doctrine, which embraces in its fulness, not only what Anglicans, as well as [Roman] Catholics, believe about Sacraments properly so called; but also the article of "the Communion of Saints;" and likewise the Mysteries of the faith.

The second addressed Butler's teaching that "probability is the guide of life".  As Newman notes, "who can really pray to a Being, about whose existence he is seriously in doubt?":

I considered that Mr. Keble met this difficulty by ascribing the firmness of assent which we give to religious doctrine, not to the probabilities which introduced it, but to the living power of faith and love which accepted it. In matters of religion, he seemed to say, it is not merely probability which makes us intellectually certain, but probability as it is put to account by faith and love.  It is faith and love which give to probability a force which it has not in itself. Faith and love are directed towards an Object; in the vision of that Object they live; it is that Object, received in faith and love, which renders it reasonable to take probability as sufficient for internal conviction.

Poetic expression mystery of the sacramental and the reality of encounter with the Divine - this is how Keble caught the imagination of his contemporaries.  What is more, it was a "music", says Newman, "long unknown".  In other words, Keble engaged in 'making strange' the Christian faith, amidst a culture in which a Christianity stripped of the sacramental was an inoffensive chaplain to the status quo

For early 21st century catholic Anglicanism the challenge is entirely not dissimilar.  A post-Christian culture shaped by a Moralistic Therapeutic Deism which has inherited Christian words, phrases and concepts, requires a culturally-appropriate contemporary expression of what Keble achieved in The Christian Year.  As the Dean of St Edmundsbury stated in a recent Church Times letter:

we need a renewed living and daring confidence in God's grace through the sacraments, theology, and liturgy of the Church.

After the example of Keble, engaging the imagination of the culture with this vision, "a new music, long unknown" is the vocation of catholic Anglicanism in the post-Christian society.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

"They who today are tares, may tomorrow be wheat": Augustine on the parables of the sower

And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.

From the Gospel reading at Mass, Wednesday of the 16th week of Ordinary Time.

In his homily on the parables of the sower in Matthew 13, Augustine interprets the parables' words on stony ground and on tares as a call to penitence, and thus the Church's renewal, rather than as a message of condemnation, dividing the assembly into a spiritual elite and a worldly, compromised mass .  The stony ground and the tares can, Augustine the pastor insists, be the arena for the working of God's grace - "God has not lost his power".  We can imagine the contrast with Donatist and Pelagian readings of the text.

Now ye know that those three places mentioned yesterday where the seed did not grow, the way side, the stony ground, and the thorny places, are the same as these 'tares' ... Accordingly I yesterday addressed the way side, I addressed the stony ground, I addressed the thorny places; and I said, Be changed while ye may: turn up with the plough the hard ground, cast the stones out of the field, pluck up the thorns out of it. Be loth to retain that hard heart, from which the word of God may quickly pass away and be lost. Be loth to have that lightness of soil, where the root of charity can take no deep hold. Be loth to choke the good seed which is sown in you by my labours, with the lusts and the cares of this world. For it is the Lord who sows; and we are only His labourers. But be ye the good ground. I said yesterday, and I say again today to all, Let one bring forth a hundred, another sixty, another thirty fold. In one the fruit is more, in another less; but all will have a place in the barn. Yesterday I said all this, today I am addressing the tares; but the sheep themselves are the tares. O evil Christians, O you, who in filling only press the Church by your evil lives; amend yourselves before the harvest come. Say not, I have sinned, and what has befallen me? God has not lost His power; but He is requiring repentance from you. I say this to the evil, who yet are Christians; I say this to the tares. For they are in the field; and it may so be, that they who today are tares, may tomorrow be wheat (from Augustine's Sermon 23 on the New Testament).

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Which Mary?

There is the Mary proclaimed by Gnostic traditions.  This is the Mary lauded by some - whether in historical studies (Karen King) or popular fiction (Dan Brown) - as bearer of a supposedly 'lost' Christianity. 

This Mary tells of Jesus the mystic, teacher of other-worldly wisdom:

Mary answered and said, What is hidden from you I will proclaim to you.

And she began to speak to them these words: I, she said, I saw the Lord in a vision ...

In a aeon I was released from a world, and in a Type from a type, and from the fetter of oblivion which is transient.

From this time on will I attain to the rest of the time, of the season, of the aeon, in silence.

When Mary had said this, she fell silent, since it was to this point that the Saviour had spoken with her.  (From the 2nd century 'Gospel of Mary'.)

Then there is the Mary of the Church's story.

Here is the Mary who points us to not to a mystic, but to the Crucified and Risen One.

Here are no disembodied visions concerning types and aeons, but encounter at Cross and Tomb.

Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene ...

Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb ...

Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’...

Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’.

To have let the popular imagination be shaped by the banalities of revived Gnostic traditions is a profound failure on the Church's part - a failure to imaginatively engage with both Scripture and culture.

Rather than a Mary speaking of a guru's thoughts, the Church's story tells of the Mary who experienced flesh-and-blood encounter with God Incarnate, Crucified, Risen.

The Mary of the Gnostic traditions is the favourite of a pale Galilean.

The Mary of the Church's story is a bearer of the deep mystery of loving encounter with the God who became flesh, who endured the wood of the Cross and the darkness of the tomb, to restore us - we who are flesh and blood - to light and life.

(The painting is Macha Chmakoff, At the Foot of the Cross.)

Monday, 21 July 2014

Priests for an Emmaus church

Company of Voices has published the text of a sermon preached by the Bishop of Woolwich earlier this month at the ordination of priests in the Woolwich episcopal area, Southwark diocese. 

There is a sense in which we can discern something of the spiritual vitality of a church by the quality of ordination sermons and charges.  Amidst much confusion - and, indeed, embarrassment - in contemporary Anglicanism about ministerial priesthood, this ordination sermon is a wonderful expression of what it is to be a priest, of the priest as person of Scripture, Eucharist and prayer in (to use a phrase based on words from Pope Francis) an Emmaus church:

The person of Scripture:

The words [Jesus] spoke were no mere small talk; he expounded the scriptures to them, as he spoke of himself. As priests you are to share in the Lord’s ministry of teaching, and if you are going to teach it’s always a good idea to learn first. That’s one reason that it’s your heads that we lay hands on: because we are commissioning you to a lifelong programme of learning, and that involves putting your grey matter to work. ‘Will you be diligent … in reading Holy Scripture, and in all studies that will deepen you faith and fit you to bear witness to the truth of the gospel?’, I will ask you, and you will say: ‘By the help of God, I will’. I hope that when you say that you will really mean it, because priests do not always find it easy to keep up a commitment to learning. In part this is because we live busy lives, and we are tempted to get by with the bare minimum we need – well, if we fall for that, we will find that the minimum becomes barer and barer as the years go by ...

You need to make sure that the assaults of doubt do not keep you from engaging everyday with the scriptures, for they are a treasure of infinite riches, never exhausted. Let yourselves be shaped by them more and more, so that you in turn can share with others the excitement of exploring the mind of the God who has made himself known to us.

The person of the Eucharist:

When Jesus has walked with his disciples and expounded the scriptures to them, he turns aside to sit at table with them. Taking bread in his hands, he blesses and breaks it for them, and it is then that he makes himself known. And you as priests are called to do the same, to bless and break the bread of life in the Eucharist – not so as to make yourself known, but to show the risen Jesus present with his people ...

If at any time this begins to feel routine to you, and you become over-familiar with this most blessed sacrament, why not take yourself off to the National Gallery, and spend some time looking at Caravaggio’s wonderful picture of the meal at Emmaus. As Jesus breaks the bread, the faces of his companions are struck with awe and wonder; the very food on the table hangs improbably on the edge, a sign that we are on the brink of a mystery which topples us over into a world we could not imagine; the whole scene is shot through with a mysterious and startling light.

The person of prayer:

All we do today we do immersed in fervent prayer springing from the heart; and without always coming back again and again to pray you cannot be a priest. Why is that? Simply because being a priest is not about techniques you can master; it’s not about processes you can follow; it’s not about strategies you can adopt; it’s about trusting entirely in God and the grace of his Spirit to do what we would have no chance of doing on our own. A priest is not a technician of the sacred, not a manager of a church, not even a leader of a community – a priest is a Christian who knows in her heart that, like every Christian, she once was lost but now is found, has been brought with a price, depends for all she is on the grace of God, and without that can do nothing at all of any use to anybody. Of all the sad sights in the world, there are few sadder than a priest who has given up on prayer – so don’t do that! ... keep praying from your heart, now and every day, praying earnestly for the gift of the Holy Spirit as you are accepted into this enormous and wonderful calling. And we will pray with you and for you, our hearts on fire with yours as we all walk along the road, hear the scriptures, break the bread together.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

"To affirm the same of the whole world of sense": Keble on the "holy imagery" of the created order

Do read the reflection on summer and Psalm 19 at The Rector's Corner, a celebration of the cosmic liturgy and how the Church's liturgy attunes us to participation in that cosmic liturgy.

In Tract 89, Keble explored the mysticism of the Patristic approach to the created order, reminding us of the "holy imagery", the sacramental nature, of "the whole world of sense":

... this presumption will evidently be strengthened, as the instances which Holy Scripture furnishes multiply, and as we find, on more and more acquaintance with it, that its typical allusions are more developed, and come out on its surface, as stars meet the eye more abundantly, when we continue gazing for any time on what seemed at first merely a space of open sky. St. Augustine appears to have been particularly gifted with the power of discerning this kind of holy imagery. It is really, wonderful, as one reads his descants, on the Psalms more especially, how many allusions he detects and brings out, with more or less ingenuity in the particular instance ; so that it must require, one would think, a mind prepossessed altogether with dislike of the principle of Mysticism, not to be carried away with him. But even without stopping to discern these more latent allusions, it should seem that on the very surface of Scripture so many of the chief visible objects are invested with spiritual meanings, that to affirm the same of the whole world of sense ought not to sound too hard a saying. The symbols which are mentioned are almost enough to make up between them "a new heaven and a new earth," and to complete the proof, that "the first heaven and the first earth" are to be regarded both generally and in their parts, as types and shadows of those which are out of sight.

On this head there appears something instructive in the circumstance that the phrase just referred to, "a new heaven and a new earth," occurs both in the Old and in the New Testament at the very conclusion of a great body of Prophecy, in the course of which the imagery of the visible world has been, one may say, unreservedly employed to represent the scenes and transactions of the invisible one. That is, after the devout mind has been accustomed in detail to associations of that kind, comes in the most comprehensive phrase that could be employed, apparently confirming, by the Creator’s authority, the view of creation, thus become familiar. Perhaps it adds something to the argument, that in the second instance the phrase occurs within a few sentences of the conclusion of the whole Bible.

(The photograph is from the BBC Northern Ireland News site: the sun setting over Rostrevor, County Down, Northern Ireland.)