Saturday, 22 November 2014

"Lewis' masterpiece": Balthasar on C.S. Lewis

Today is for many Anglican provinces the commemoration of C.S. Lewis (although not, perversely, in Ireland - the Church in which he was baptised).

I wonder if the most striking theological reference to Lewis is to be found in Hans Urs von Balthasar's Dare We Hope "That all Men be Saved"?.  Discussing a critic of his own understanding of hell, Balthasar states:

... if Herr Hermes lightly dismisses the testimony that I refer to by Karl Rahner, then that of C.S. Lewis - whom he approvingly cites - which forms the constant theme of Lewis' masterpiece The Great Divorce, might provide him with material for reflection, or perhaps the words of Cardinal Ratzinger ...

(Dare We Hope "That all Men be Saved"? Igantius Press, 1988, p.56)

Friday, 21 November 2014

The pan-sacramental vision of Keble's 'Christian Year': joy, grief and the Church's prayer

For Keble, the physical landscape and the changing seasons have a sacramentality in which is 'hidden' the grace of the Triune God.  Discerning this sacramentality is the work of the heart, moved by faith, hope and love.  This is also the case with what we might term the emotional landscape of human lives.  Here too is sacramentality.

In addition to providing verse for the temporal and sanctoral, Keble also does so for the occasional offices of the Book of Common Prayer.  For Keble, these liturgies unveil the sacramental presence in our emotional landscapes.  Thus, he states of "wedded Love":

There is an awe in mortals' joy,
A deep mysterious fear.

Our emotions as we approach a wedding - the sense of high significance, meaning, and purpose - are a sacramental experience.  But this is only unveiled through the liturgy of the rite of matrimony:

E'en wedded Love, till Thou be nigh,
Dares not believe her gain.

This through the rite of matrimony, "wedded Love" becomes the experience of "All blessings of the breast and womb/Of Heaven and earth beneath".  Our awe and fear in approaching marriage is unveiled, and we encounter the delight and gift of blessing.

Similarly, the mother's joy at the birth of a child speaks of an event that has meaning beyond mere reproduction, mere scientific fact:

... to-day this hallow'd air
Is fragrant with a mother's first and fondest prayer.

In the liturgy for the Churching of Women, this "fondest prayer", this "dear affection", participates in Triune Love and becomes a sign of Pentecostal grace and a foretaste of eschatological hope:


Only let Heaven her fire impart,
No richer incense breathes on earth ...

O what a treasure of sweet thought
Is here! what hope and joy and love
All in one tender bosom brought,
For the all-gracious Dove
To brood o'er silently, and form for Heaven
Each passionate wish and dream to dear affection given.

If joy in marriage and the birth of a child has a sacramental significance, so too does grief.  Keble's ends his verse on the Visitation and Communion of the Sick, with a reflection on the sense of loss following death:

O soothe us, haunt us, night and day,
Ye gentle Spirits far away ...

What is striking here, of course, is how doctrinally inappropriate such language is.  "Haunt us".  "Spirits far away".  It is, however, the language of grief (even in a secular age): the longing for presence, for death not to be that which entirely severs relationship.  It is such emotions which are gathered up in the Paschal Mystery to become the communion of saints:

Ye gentle Spirits far away,
With whom we shar'd the cup of grace.

There is also the silence of grief and loss.  This Keble in his verse for the Burial of the Dead, unveils as echoing the "still, twixt hope and fear" which would have greeted Christ's command to the widow's son, "Arise":

E'en such an awful soothing calm
We sometimes see aligh
On Christian mourners, while they wait
In silence, by some church-yard gate,
Their summons to the holy rite.

We might also wonder about the silence which fell on the women as the fled from the empty tomb in Mark 16:8 - in other words, a pregnant silence, a sign of Resurrection.  As Keble continues:

And such the tones of love, which break
The stillness of that hour,
Quelling th' embitter'd spirit's strife - 
"The Resurrection and the Life
"Am I: believe, and die no more."

The mourners' silence of grief is unveiled by the words of the funeral liturgy to be the expectant arena for Resurrection hope.  Our very silence in the face of death and loss is sacramental sign of Resurrection.

In his discussion of the significance of The Christian Year, Newman referred to its celebration of "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".  The Christian Year both 'makes strange', through re-enchantment, and then unveils, through sacramental discernment.  Newman says:

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.

Re-publishing The Christian Year and distributing it in parishes, schools and universities is not what this short series of blog posts has been implying.  Early 19th century poetry (and not particularly good poetry, at that) is not the means of evangelisation in the 21st century.  However, we too live in an age which the "general tone" of much Christian literature, art and presence is "so nerveless and impotent".  And we too, amidst the "strange secularism" of this age, need to rediscover "a new music ... long unknown", in which we can discern natural landscape and emotional landscape as the very stuff of grace and redemption, in which and through which the Triune God is present.  To this end, we would do well to again listen to Keble the poet.

Christopher Snook's study says of Keble:

This conception of the natural world as sign and symbol of the supernatural was central to the Tractarian aesthetic.

It is this aesthetic - and the artistic means of sharing it - which, if it can be rediscovered by contemporary catholic Anglicans, could have the potential to meaningfully to speak to a "strange secularism".

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

The pan-sacramental vision of Keble's 'Christian Year': the saints of autumn & winter

In his verse for the saints' days which fall in autumn and winter, Keble again draws us to discern the deep, hidden sacramentality of the created order in a time of decay and darkness.  His poem for St Matthew's Day does this, not with specific reference to the passage of the seasons but rather concerning urban life:

These gracious lines shed Gospel light
On Mammon's gloomiest cells,
As on some city's cheerless night
The tide of sunrise swells,
Till tower, and dome, and bridge-way proud
Are mantled with a golden cloud,
And to wise hearts this certain hope us given;
"No mist that man may raise, shall hide the eye of Heaven."


Even amidst the grime and smog of the city, sunrise can yet be experienced, seen, felt - the "wise heart" can here discern hidden Light and Hope.

On All Saints' Day, Keble tells us how "the shadows sleep on every slanting hill".  What we see is shadow, quietness, decay:

How quiet the woodland scene!
Each flower and tree, its duty done,
Reposing in decay serene.

But autumnal decay and quiet, shadows and darkness heighten our sensitivity to and discernment of things unseen (and here we have echoes of Hallowmas Eve):

Sure if our eyes were purg'd to trace
God's unseen armies hovering round ...

On the shortest day of the year, 21st December, the old calendar celebrated St Thomas.  When darkness is at its deepest, the Church celebrated the apostle who most dramatically confessed the Resurrection.  Keble captures

Thus, ever brighter and more bright,
On those He came to save
The Lord of new-created light
Dawned gradual from the grave;
Till passed th' enquiring day-light hour,
And with closed door in silent bower
The Church in anxious musing sate,
As one who for redemption still had long to wait. 


We wait in darkness and silence, but in that dark wait we behold the gradual dawn of Light.

Speaking of the Incarnation of the Word, Pusey declared:

All His attributes He veiled and hid.

This is the beauty of Incarnation and thus of sacramentality.  Humanity is not overpowered by this hidden God, we are enticed.  We are not blinded by overbearing Light, we are given to glimpse, momentarilty taste, and thus glimpsing and tasting to desire yet more.  It is this sacramentality which Keble perceives manifested amidst the smog of the city, in the decay and shadows of autumn, in the darkness of deep winter. 

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

The pan-sacramental vision of Keble's 'Christian Year': the waning year

In an essay reviewing the future of Anglicanism, published shortly after Rowan Williams announced he was leaving Canterbury, John Milbank identified key components of the Anglican tradition which provided "a remarkable, quietly heroic and theoretically quite definite resistance to an overly facile and uncritical progressivism".  Amongst these is a "pan-sacramentalism":

Beginning with Hooker, a radical insistence on the mingling of Christ's human and divine natures that later gave rise to an "incarnationalism" and "kenoticism" refusing - often in contrast to the intellectual and spiritual betrayals perpetrated by Catholic baroque scholasticism - any facile separations between the sacred and the secular or between faith and reason, grace and nature. Indeed, just because it had to resist Puritanism, Anglican thought often went further in the direction of a "hyper-Catholic" pan-sacramentalism than Catholic thinkers themselves. In the literary work of Thomas Nashe, William Shakespeare (if he was an Anglican), Edmund Spenser, John Donne and Thomas Traherne, we discover a radically conservative celebration of the mystical significance of the cosmos, the human body, human sexuality and human language (against Calvinistic rationalisations of its usage) in ways that are often linked with remarkable poetic and fictional innovation. This is allied to a new sense, expressed first by Spenser and later by Traherne, that with the "dilation" of the heart upwards towards God, its expansion outwards into the cosmos, human society and the sexual other is not simply left behind, as if the two enlargements were in competition with each other.

Milbank's Beyond Secular Order similarly sees Traherne as an exemplar of a poetic tradition within Christian orthodoxy which celebrates a "deepened enchantment" of cosmology.  One name missing from those listed by Milbank is John Keble.  In some ways, this is understandable.  Keble the poet displays none of the technical ability of, for example, Donne or Traherne, as Sheridan Gilley has noted.  My now battered copy of The Christian Year was bought during precocious teenage years, some three decades ago.  I can remember feeling distinctly underwhelmed when first reading it.  I dipped back into it during my mid- to late-20s, and Keble the poet still underwhelmed.  It was all a bit twee, a sort of literary expression of sentimental Victorian representations of Christ.

Perhaps it is one of the blessings of middle-age to rediscover Keble.  Yes, he is no Traherne or Hopkins, but with the passage of the years I have come to discern and appreciate his deeply sacramental vision of the natural world.  It is evident in his verse for both the temporal and the sanctoral.  Today I want to briefly reflect on some of Keble's verse for this time of year, the last Sundays after Trinity and Advent, days of autumn and winter.

In his poem for the Twenty-First Sunday after Trinity, Keble beholds a robin on an autumn morning:

The red-breast warbles round this leafy cove.

Sweet messenger of "calm decay" ... 
Singing so thankful to the dreary blast,
Though gone and spent its joyous prime,
And on the world's autumnal time,
'Mid wither'd hues and sere, its lot be cast.

The robin's "low chant", amidst the autumnal decay, is sacramental - the outward and visible sign of the Church's vocation, "as o'er the Church the gatherig twilight falls", to continue our chant, our praises.  Joy and praise, even amidst decay and growing darkness.

An eschatological theme resounds in the verse for the Twenty-Third Sunday after Trinity.  Here Keble points us to dying day in late autumn:

Red o'er the forest peers the setting sun,
The line of yellow light dies fast away
That crown'd the eastern copse: and chill and dun
Falls on the moor the brief November day.

The death of day is a sign of the Church's eschatological hope, for "Man's portion is to die and rise again".  The glory of the sunset on that "brief November day", therefore, signifies the glory that awaits humanity redeemed.  We will "soar as fast and free/As his tranfigur'd Lord with lightning form/And snowy vest - such grace He won for thee".

This discerning of the sacramentality of the waning of the year, of autumn and winter, perhaps culminates in Keble's poem for the Second Sunday in Advent:

Why then, in sad and wintry time,
Her heavens all dark with doubt and crime,
Why lifts the Church her drooping head,
As though her evil hour were fled?
Is she less wise than leaves of spring,
Or birds that cower with folded wing?
What sees she in this lowering sky 
To tempt her meditative eye?

The poem ends by reminding us that the Master comes not in the bright warmth of midday, but in the cold darkness of midnight.  It is this "sad and wintry time" that allows the Church to discern and behold afresh that "She has a charm, a word of fire".

In an excellent study, Christopher Snook states:

The notion of God’s hiddeness in the material world constitutes the most definitive characteristic of Tractarian poetics. 

Keble's reflections on the decay of autumn and the darkness of winter manifest this.  When life and glory is most hidden, it is yet present in a manner which can grasp us, warm us, enlighten us.  And if hidden Glory can be discerned even "in sad and wintry time", we can also behold Glory in other surprisingly unexpected, hidden places - the babbling of the infant, the weakness of the dying, bread and wine on the Altar.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Keble's 'Christian Year': poetry discerning the sacramental

He thought of poetry as a kind of prayer ... Keble was, notoriously, tone-deaf; and his verses were no encitement to Wordsworth's "communal ecstasy of song".  Yet they have a depth of conviction which triumphs over any defects of form.  Their very technical imperfections seem intended to show half-darkly the mystery behind the veil, the godhead all but visible in the beauty of creation, and sacramentally present everywhere, nowhere more so than in the humblest work of every day.  'The Christian Year' is the expression of a conviction that poetry is the ideal vehicle for Christianity, because poetry most subtly and delicately, even opaquely, conveys those doctrines which are glimpsed in the glories of sun and stars, tree and leaf, spring and summer, but which can only be received by the sympathetic heart in humble faith.

From Sheridan Gilley's Introduction to the 1976 edition of Keble's The Christian Year, published for the Society of Ss Peter & Paul by the Church Literature Association.

Friday, 14 November 2014

"More than once condemned by the Church": the Spectator, ++Justin and usury

There is a lot to dislike in the Spectator's comment piece "Thank heavens for Justin Welby!".  It contains the usual harping about +Rowan from right-wing commentary.  It implies that tinkering around the edges with capitalism is fine for the CofE, but engaging in a more significant critique is left-wing dissent.  It gives voice to the lie that whereas ++Justin speaks up for persecuted Christian minorities in the Middle East, +Rowan did not during his time at Canterbury.  (A quick Google search in the Spectator office would have revealed this and similar.)  And then there is the remarkably silly line, "No one has condemned homophobia more effectively than Justin Welby". Yes, he has done so and done so robustly.  But "no one" has done this "more effectively"? Really?

The apparent reason for the Spectator piece is the reforms of the payday loan industry:

Welby has inspired reform of the industry not by trying to set himself up as the leader of the opposition in a cassock, but by acting as an effective leader of the Church of England. His approach to the payday loan industry was not to demand that it be banned, he being aware that an even darker industry of doorstep loan sharks would replace it, but to compete with it head on. He took the church to the needy by supporting credit unions which will do the job of Wonga but without annualised interest rates of 5,853 per cent and threatening letters from fictitious firms of lawyers.

According to the Spectator, it seems to be ++Justin's evangelicalism and business experience which allow him to understand markets better than his catholic, academic, left-wing predecessor:

 
Justin Welby, who of course had a career in business, would never resort to the bizarre charge that markets are malign in themselves. On the contrary, he recognises that the church operates in a market of its own, competing for souls. He is from the Church of England’s evangelical wing, which is growing, and his calls for local churches to support credit unions and work with the Treasury on reforms to payday lending are themselves a kind of evangelical mission which, while not necessarily expanding congregations on sink estates, does much to demonstrate how financial services can be harnessed as a power for good.

What if, however, this is all a case of wishful thinking on the part of the Spectator? What if, rather than ++Justin representing the acceptable face of the CofE, merely proposing modest, tasteful reforms to capitalism,  his critique of the payday loan industry flows from a deeply catholic Christian critique of markets, wealth and usury?  This, after all, is much more likely in view of what the ABC's website says regarding ++Justin's priorities for his ministry:

He has frequently said that the Roman Catholic approach to Christian social teaching, beginning with the encyclical of Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum, up to Pope Benedict XVI's Caritas Veritate, has greatly influenced his social thinking.

An enduring aspect of catholic social teaching, with deep patristic roots, is the critique of usury.  In the words of Thomas:

To take usury for money lent is unjust in itself, because this is to sell what does not exist, and this evidently leads to inequality which is contrary to justice (Summa II 78.1).


Anglicans inherited this stance and reaffirmed it.  One of Hooker's sermons noted that the Pope "falsely charged" the reformed ecclesia Anglicana with "abandoning fasting, abhorring confession, disliking penance, liking usury, finding no good in celibacy".

In a similar vein, Lancelot Andrewes' first biographer states:

He generally hated all vices: but three, which he ever reputed sins, were most especially odious unto him: First, usury ...

We might also point to the series of three sermons on almsgiving in the Book of Homilies, powerfully contrasting those who "choose with pinching covetousness rather to lean unto the Devil, than by charitable mercifulness ... to come unto Christ".  To be concerned with one's wealth rather than with almsgiving is to invert the teaching of the Gospel:

We love mammon, and lose our souls.  We fear lest our patrimony should perish from us; but we fear not lest we should perish for it.  Thus do we perversely love that we should hate, and hate that [i.e. the poor] we should love; we be negligent where we should be careful, and careful where we need not.

"Interest" is mentioned at the close of the first sermon - but "interest", quoting Proverbs 19:17, in terms of what God gives to the alms-giver ("the possession of the life everlasting"), rather than what one earns from the poor when lending to them.

The call of the Gospel, then, is to be a "liberal alms-giver", not a usurer.

Here the Homilies maintain a very catholic critique of markets, commerce and wealth, in accordance with "the wholesome counsel of godly fathers".  And it is in this tradition of Anglican social teaching that ++Justin stands in his critique of the payday loan industry.  What is more, as a Catholic Herald piece suggested earlier this year, there is more than a whiff of Chesterton's Distributism to ++Justin's stance.  It is, in other words, significantly much more radical than the Spectator suggests.

"Thank heavens for Justin Welby!"  Indeed.  Or, to quote from Rerum Novarum, the papal encyclical referred to in the priorities for ++Justin's ministry:

By degrees it has come to pass that working men have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition. The mischief has been increased by rapacious usury, which, although more than once condemned by the Church, is nevertheless, under a different guise, but with like injustice, still practiced by covetous and grasping men (3).

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Contemporary myths and "the raw material of icons"

Last week catholicity and covenant suggested that reflections by Orthodox biblical scholar Eric Jobe on how Scripture took up and appropriated ancient Canaanite mythology suggested a model for the Church's interaction with culture.  Jobe wonderfully describes the mythology as providing "the raw material of icons" in Scripture.  This led catholicity and covenant to wonder about what contemporary myths similarly provide "the raw material of icons".

Three blog pieces in recent days have, I think, given us such examples.  Firstly, the Dean of Southwark points to the powerful poppy display at the Tower of London:

I know from talking to Fr Bertrand Olivier, who is vicar of All Hallows’-by-the-Tower and who writes in the latest edition of the Church Times, that as the neighbour to the installation they have been drawn into the ‘poppy phenomenan’. So many people have come from looking at the poppies into church that they have had to make extra provision for them. For, when they arrive, they want to do something as their response, such as light a candle. Though we at Southwark Cathedral are across the river from the Tower we have noticed a surge in visitor numbers and not just wanting a cup of tea!

It has reminded me of what happened when Diana, Princess of Wales died ... 

 The installation at the Tower seems to have drawn from the British people that same visceral response and that same need to express grief, express remembrance, to express deep gratitude and to act as a people united in something which it is hard to put a name to. But they do it without the religious language with which the church works but at the same time they know what they should do. It is a strange secularism and it is not true secularism – there is a latent, often hidden, often denied spirituality deep in the hearts of so many that, sadly, the church cannot connect with – but God does.

Secondly,  Mthr Miranda Threlfall-Holmes has reflected on some of the Christmas adverts released by UK retailers:

I think all that cultural excitement around our Christian celebration helps, rather than hinders, our proclamation.

They aren't doing our job for us - but they are doing a very good job of building the excitement, the anticipation, of Advent for us.

People want magic, sparkle, sentiment; they want their children to be happy; they want joy, anticipation, a sense that the humdrum everyday is not all that life is about.

If we can't build on that to make our message heard, we need to look closely at what we are doing as churches, rather than moan about the warm-up act ...

So I hope we dont hear a lot of Christian grumbling about the commercialisation of Christmas this year. (If you want to grumble, do something practical instead match your spend on Christmas with your giving to a charity like Christian Aid).

Instead, lets concentrate on doing Christmas properly. Celebrate, tell the story, show how that magic/sparkle/joy (Ok, perhaps we cant offer penguins) isnt just a commercial confection for one day only, but is available to us all because of what happened that first Christmas.

Thirdly, and on a related theme, TEC priest Fr Paul Woodrum suggests that, rather than grumbling about the month-long commercial shopping season, we retrieve the traditional rituals of Advent:

While the rest of the world lights up for the mid-winter season’s crazy blend of commercialism, festival and cultural Christianity, most of our Episcopal Church’s remain externally dark, unadorned, and preciously uncontaminated by the happy secularism all around us.

But why? Of all places shouldn’t the church be the one manifesting some outward signs of its preparation for the celebration of the Incarnation? Something that says we are joyfully preparing the way and welcoming those who would join us on the pilgrimage to Bethlehem? Are we protesting the commercialism about which we can do little, or doing a futile exercise in liturgical purity? I’m not suggesting we put Santa Claus on the roof before Halloween. Just that, beginning with the First Sunday of Advent, we do a little of our own welcoming decoration. Instead of shutting out the world, let’s go with the flow and invite the world in with our own outward signs of joyful preparation: wreaths on the doors, a tree lighting for that evergreen on the front lawn with folks gathered for Advent carols and hot chocolate, a lighted Christmas Crib [presumably with figures added as days go by - no Child until Midnight Mass!], an outdoor Advent wreath marking the Sundays until Christmas, lighted evergreen around the doors, whatever seems suitable (and of course, tasteful) in the local situation ...

I’m not saying, “rush Christmas,” that we all know doesn’t really begin until its Eve on December 24, but at least let passersby know we are preparing for its coming even more than Macy’s, and welcome them to join us in celebrating God with us.

Each of these reflections point to powerful contemporary mythologies - stories which narrate meaning and enchantment amidst the disechantment of the Market.  Each of these myths suggests some form of cultural openness to re-enchantment.  What is more, in that fantastic phrase of the Dean of Southwark, they each speak of "a strange secularism [that] is not true secularism".  As Andrew Brown has commented, "Even in secular Britain, something like 60% of the population says they believe in God, maybe 50% in ghosts, and 25% in angels".  This "strange secularism" suggests a culture that, at least in part, remains open in some way to encountering the transcendent.

Here, then, are "the raw materials of icons" - raw material for the Church to graciously acknowledge and take up in proclamation, evangelisation, liturgy and pastoral encounter, transforming them into the beauty, grace and truth of the Word made flesh.