Friday, 31 October 2014

Making the dark bright on Hallowmas Eve

From hope of things unseen, a question for Hallowmas Eve:

Our minds may be molded by our culture (and to recognize and be attuned to movie stars more than Bible characters these days, but it’s not impossible, or even necessarily difficult, to realign your mind to recognizing old friends amongst the communion of the saints instead ...

What if we cultivated familial attachment with our Christian brothers and sisters throughout time, as our forebears have done?  What would our prayers, lifestyles, homes, and relationships look like if we allowed the examples of the saints to truly influence us as much as we allow celebrities (or even just the popular kids at school–or in our cities or societies) to dictate our tastes, style, goals, and desires?

Importantly, the question came to hope of things unseen whilst looking at an icon of St John the Baptist during a visit to NYC's Metropolitian Museum of Art. 

It does suggest that cultivating "familial attachment" to the saints requires that we see them - or, at least, that familial attachment deepens when we see them.

In his Glory, Laud and Honour: The Arts of the Anglican Counter-Reformation, Graham Parry explores the significance of the post-Reformation restoration of stained glass windows of the saints.  Speaking of one example, he states:

What we have here is essentially a reversion to a pre-Reformation decorative scheme, intense and all-enclosing, that induces a strong devotional atmosphere.

In Altars Restored, Fincham and Tyacke note:

Between 1637 and 1640 Richard Greenbury also devised for the antechapel at Magdalen the last judgement for the great west window, and placed in the other eight windows forty-eight saints.

It is easy to overlook the significance of the iconography of Anglican stained glass, but the widespread survival of stained glass imagery during the iconoclasm of the Reformation, and its revival in the early 17th century, has allowed generations of Anglicans to experience and encounter something of the communion of saints.  They give light-filled visual expression to the truth that we - we who gather in this parish church - are "knit together ... in one communion and fellowship" with the "blessed saints".  Here they are around us, here.

We could, of course, do so much more in very many places to integrate our saints on stained glass into our teaching, to make it explicit that here in the play of light, colour and glass, we glimpse the beauty of grace, we encounter the weight of glory. 

On Hallowmas Eve, then, perhaps we can reflect on the presentation of a saint or saints in a particular stained glass window, either known to us or which captures our imagination.

And rejoice that "The dark is bright".

Thursday, 30 October 2014

The drama of darkness

In modernity, the drama of darkness should have ended.  In early modernity, we made light to dispel the darkness, to extend daytime.  In late modernity, we indulge in 24-hours entertainment and communication to perpetuate daytime.

And yet our very desire to extend the day suggests that the drama of darkness continues to unsettle modernity.  Why seek to banish it if it is harmless and without significance?

Personal safety, loneliness, addictions, disorder (the local A&E late on Friday evening).  Our fears of darkness persist because darkness is their time.  The artificial extension of daytime is little more than a think veneer which, ironically, can actually add to the fear of darkness - militating against personal safety, reinforcing loneliness, increasing the temptation of addictions, giving occasion to disorder.

As a rebellion against modernity's artifice of permanent day, popular culture celebrates the drama of darkness.  From the abiding importance of darkness to the horror genre in literature and film, to the shadows of Nordic Noir, to the Goth subculture, darkness remains dramatic.

Rather than the artificial extension of daytime, the attempted denial of darkness, the Church embraces the rhythm of light and darkness, day and night in its cycle of prayer.  The unsettling drama of darkness is acknowledged in order to be redeemed, to re-received as gift:

Give unto thy servants that peace which the world cannot give ... and also that by thee we being defended from the fear of our enemies may pass our time in rest and quietness ... 

Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night ...

Drive away all snares of the enemy; Let thy holy angels dwell herein to preserve us in peace ...

We give the darkness over to the One who is Creator and Redeemer, who gave darkness first as gift, who redeems it to be peace in the face of those powers desiring it as an experience of fear and disorder.

And what then of the dark times of the year, after summer in the northern hemisphere when the days shorten, the time of dark days?  A secular age offers three festivals which reverence the Market - Hallowe'en, Black Friday (strangely increasingly marked by UK stores despite us not celebrating Thanksgiving!), and a 'long' Christmas (beginning in mid-November, ending on 24th December).  Reading these 'secular liturgies' with James K. A. Smith's Imagining the Kingdom, we can see how the drama of seasonal darkness makes us yearn for light.

It is in this season that the Church celebrates festivals of Light.  Against the background of darkness, we behold more clearly the beauty of the Light.    As the days begin to shorten, as dark evenings fall earlier, we celebrate Michaelmas - we are not alone in the darkness, we are surrounded by angels and archangels.  There is Hallowmas, when we rejoice in numberless lights, witnesses to grace, truth, hope, love in every age, in every place.  So many are they, says the poet Malcolm Guite, that "The dark is bright". 

And then Advent.  Amidst the darkened, cold landscape of December, our prayer is shaped by words spoken in past dark times.  Comfort yet, comfort ye my peopleO Sapientia, O Adonai, O Radix Jesse.

In the deepest darkness of the year, we celebrate Christmas.  Our churches, lit only by candles, hear the proclamation of the Word Incarnate - "the lights shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it".

The drama of Light is made possible because the darkness is dramatic.  The gift of darkness enables us to behold, to re-receive, the Light - revealing, entrancing, enlightening.

Despite modernity, darkness continues to shape and to intrigue the culture.  It continues to be drama.  The Church's liturgical prayer offers a rich means of engaging this discernment of the drama of darkness ... and enabling it to become an encounter with the drama of Light.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

"My name is Legion": on naming Evil

Reflecting on Mark's account of the healing of the Gerasene demoniac, and the healing accounts following it in Mark's narrative, Eamon Duffy notes:

liberal Protestant commentators have spent hours making up excuses and explanations.  The favourite one is that there were of course no demons: that was only the early Church's primitive, pre-scientific world-view.

This will not do, insists Duffy:

Mark is not writing about the especially desperate situation in first-century Gallilee, which he almost certainly did not know: it is the world he is describing, our world, a world without God.  In these opening years of the third millenium we feel with a new intensity the depth of this human alienation from the presence of God and from each other.  With the help of television we feast each night on horrors - starvation and the aftermath of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, conflict and terror in Israel, private crime and public atrocity, and, maybe worse than all, the collapse of shared valye, the new certainty that there can be no certainties, that we invent morality as we invent taste, that there lies before us not the will of God for human flourishing, but the supermarket of values, where everything is up for grabs ... And if we are conservative we call for a stronger police-force and tougher laws, hoping by coercion to control forces which no man can bind, no, not with chains; and if we are liberals we preen ourselves on all this bewilderment, and call it pluralism, or, if we work in the University, perhaps, postmodernism, and think of ourselves as enlightened; but Mark's name for it was Legion, and he saw that it was tearing us apart.

There is a chilling quality to Mark's account of the Gerasene demoniac.  The tombs and decomposing bodies amongst which he lived.  The harsh physical restraints imposed by the mob - frightened locals, not unduly worried about wounding and compounding misery.  The dark agony which lay behind the howling and the self-harming.

And then there is the voice.

My name is Legion; for we are many.

We are meant to shudder at this point, aren't we? Evil is no blind, impersonal force.  No mere chance or misfortune.  Evil has a voice and is intent on the disintegration of our personalities, our relationships, our hopes.

As Rowan Williams states:

The Devil is not a convenient metaphor for extreme wickedness or even for the acute sense of meaningless.  It may even be less of a mistake to think of him as a kind of person than to think of him as a kind of symbol.  There is more than a 'projection' here, more than an 'externalisation of inner conflicts'; in some sense, we really do meet another, a stranger, not a symbol from our conscious imaginings, but something that waits for us.

The Church's embarrassment about naming the Evil One was perhaps best illustrated in recent times by the CofE's decision to remove reference to the Devil from a revised Baptismal rite.  As the Daily Telegraph reported:

An official explanation sent out to members of the Church’s General Synod, following a trial of the proposed wording, said most clergy had found it “much easier” to ask parents and godparents to make vows which do not mention Satan.

But, with memorable understatement, it also noted that “several” of those consulted “regretted the loss of the Devil”. 

The irony is that a more lively sense of the Evil One and the demonic (however misdirected) may exist in popular culture - the result of an ever-popular horror genre in literature and films - than in some aspects of the Church's liturgy and proclamation.

This should lead us to reflect on the question posed by Alison Milbank, about the popularity and persistence of this genre: about the desire to experience the shudder that comes from discerning not just impersonal forces of misfortune but personal manifestation of Evil. That this should occur in a secular age is, at the very least, worthy of observation.  Milbank points to Taylor's work on secularism to show what should be happening in secularism's culture of disenchantment:

In the process the self becomes "buffered", no longer vulnerable to the power of forces beyond the self. He no longer fears demons and thunderstorms and, more radically, they no longer exist for him.

Against this background, the horror genre is an attempt to re-enchant, in Milbank's words, "showing that the buffers do not work".

There is, then, a cultural opening for the Church's rich and compelling account of Evil and the demonic.  As seen in Mark's account of the Gerasene demoniac, it is no easy, bland, comfortable narrative.  In fact, it is profoundly uncomfortable.  The Evil One is named.  The desires of the Evil One are revealed and confronted.

And overcome.

But here too there is nothing easy, bland or comfortable.  The bloody agony of the cross.  The descent into hell.  The darkness of the tomb.

Here our intimations that the buffered self is a cold fantasy find their fulfilment in the fantasy of the real.  Perhaps we need to retrieve a much richer liturgical language to proclaim this. Few, if any, contemporary eucharistic prayers come close to the drama proclaimed by the prayer of Hippolytus, even those claiming this as their origin.  But here we see what we could retrieve as a means of proclaiming the Church's drama - that the Holy One has overcome Legion, restoring to us light and life:

Who, when he was delivered to voluntary suffering
in order to dissolve death,
and break the chains of the devil,
and tread down hell,
and bring the just to the light,
and set the limit,
and manifest the resurrection,
taking the bread, and giving thanks to you, said,
"Take, eat, for this is my body which is broken for you."


I feel it is appropriate to add the traditional prayer to St Michael at the end of this post:

St. Michael the Archangel,
defend us in battle.
Be our defence against the wickedness and snares of the Devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray,
and do thou,
O Prince of the heavenly hosts,
by the power of God,
thrust into hell Satan,
and all the evil spirits,
who prowl about the world
seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

"Something of a horror story"

From Alison Milbank's paper Renewing the Christian Imagination through Literature:

Stories can help us by embedding ethical dilemmas in concrete form, as can soap-operas, which is why young teenagers are so drawn to them. Teenage fiction that has grown up is highly moral in a Guardian-reading style too. But one of the most popular sorts of reading and watching teenagers enjoy is horror and gothic ... Very many teenagers do Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for GCSE, which is a novel all about the separation of science from morality and religion, about knowledge separate from beauty and goodness, about our responsibilities to other creatures, about playing God. It is a Christian work at base, and one that actually provokes the religious sense. It would make a perfect text for discussion for young people’s Christian formation and for opening moral issues with those who are outside our congregations.

Why do young people like to read about vampires and monsters? This would be an excellent topic to discuss with them in the context of a religion that is something of a horror story too. For hundreds of years the shock and trauma of the crucifixion meant that though it was preached, it was not represented, so great was the shame associated with the image. Eastern Christianity still does not represent it. For the Goth young people I met in the States, Christianity appealed precisely because it spoke to the darkness and terror of existence. Most critics claim that Gothic literature is produced by the repressions of a culture. In the case of Goth culture in the US they see the conformism and optimism of American culture as something to resist. By provoking the sacred in a dark, even Satanic, form, they break through the banality of secular capitalism, using images that gain in power from their inversion. There is, of course, a regular Goth Eucharist at St Edwards in Cambridge. I am not sure what I think about this. It seems appropriate to use darkness and the dark night of the soul in Lent or Advent, on ember days, but the Eucharist takes the dark things and transforms them ...

What I have been suggesting here is that we should be freer in our use of novels and stories, and filmic stories too, to open discussion, to explore fears and desires for something beyond. You may feel I have far too modest an aim, but I do believe that unless we can provoke the religious sense to begin with, we cannot begin to teach the gospel.

Monday, 27 October 2014

The Gothic in the Canon

From Wool gathering of a northern dean, the blog of Michael Sadgrove, Dean of Durham, on Hallowe'en:

In earlier Christian societies, it belonged to a triduum: three days of religious commemorations. Hallowe’en was the vigil, a day of preparation. Next day came the joyful celebration of the saints brought the light of Christ into our world, and after that, All Souls with its solemn memories of the dead and the opportunity to think about dying and death in the light of the crucified and risen One. It would have made all the difference that the rituals, parody and play-acting were firmly held within a Christian framework. Lose that, and Hallowe’en becomes an end in itself, one more occasion of self-indulgence, an anti-game perhaps, laden with an unhealthy aspect that relishes frightening ourselves and others.  

Some churches ritualise Hallowe’en by devising games and rituals that focus not on darkness but on light, not on 'ghoulies and ghosties and things that go bump in the night', but on the wholesome goodness of the saints. My question about that is whether there’s still room to acknowledge the reality of the shadow, all that is threatening, oppressive and demonic in life as the traditional symbols and rituals encouraged. Perhaps what’s needed is a way of ritualising both together within one Hallowe’en ceremony. It could look like a foreshadowing of Good Friday and Easter when we recall both the awfulness of Golgotha, the ‘Place of the Skull’, and what follows, the new life and expectant hope of an empty tomb in the spring time garden. These are the places where truly human beings and saints are formed.

The hint of the Hallowmas triduum is retained in the classical BCP with its provision for 'the Even or Vigil' before All Saints.  (And, strangely, All Saints - named last - is out of chronological sequence in the list of vigils and fasts.)  With the 20th century restoration of All Souls to most Anglican calendars, the liturgical context for the triduum has been re-established. 

As Michael Sadgrove suggests, the Eve of All Hallows thus becomes the background of shadow and darkness against which we celebrate the light of Hallowmas and share in the prayerful commemoration of the faithful departed on All Souls.  Without the shadow, without the darkness, we can too easily lose sight of the glory of the Light - which is how the cultural process of disenchantment can unfold.

So what liturgical provision, then, for the Eve of All Hallows?  I noticed one description of the liturgy in TEC's Book of Occasional Services:

There’s a “Service for All Hallow’s Eve” in the Book of Occasional Services, and it’s got some rich and creepy readings from the bible: Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones; Saul and the witch of Endor; and the graphic depiction of the war in Heaven from Revelation.

"Rich and creepy" isn't a bad description of these passages. It is also applies to another of the suggested lections, Job 4:12-21:

Amid thoughts from visions of the night,
   when deep sleep falls on mortals,
dread came upon me, and trembling,
   which made all my bones shake.
A spirit glided past my face;
   the hair of my flesh bristled ...

Such provision reminds us of how Scripture embraces the strangeness of the shadows, the uneasiness of the darkness - what we might call the Gothic in the Canon.  It is these shadows, this darkness, which the the Crucified One experiences to the utmost in the cross and the descent into hell.  It is thus that we see the glorious Resurrection light, the light reflected in the communion of saints (All Saints) and which is the hope of all the faithful departed (All Souls).

We need the shadows, we need the darkness, that we may behold the glory of the light.  We need those "rich and creepy readings", Scripture's Gothic, that we may rejoice in the light that is not mere comfort or normality, but Light of Light.

(The illustration is Blake's 'The Vision of Eliphaz'.)

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Word consuming/consumed

Between the Word taking flesh and the flesh rising again, death which came between was consumed ... We live then by Him, by eating Him.

Augustine Tractates on John XXVI 10 & 19.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Daily office, Venite and Paschal Mystery

Last month, after ten years of praying the daily office according to the CofE's Common Worship: Daily Prayer, I moved to the BCP 1662*.  It is still very early days for me to begin to process, never mind articulate, the differences - but it does feel different.  1662 is certainly more easily memorised.  It is dramatically different praying such large portions of the Psalter each day.  The reciting of the baptismal creed grounds the praying of the Office in baptismal gift, identity and vocation.

And then there is the unchanging use at Matins of the Venite, that powerful call at the outset of each day:

Today if ye will hear his voice ...

On the Covenant blog, Fr. Matthew Olver has an excellent reflection on the role of this canticle in the daily office:

One of the things Cranmer wisely retained is something we find in Chapter 9 of the The Rule of St. Benedict. There, St Benedict directed how Vigils or the Night Office is to be said (in constructing Mattins/Morning Prayer, Cranmer drew from this office, along with Lauds and Prime). Whether in winter or in summer, the Benedictine office begins in the same way: a three-fold repetition of “Lord, open thou our lips/And our mouth shall shew forth thy praise,” followed by Psalm 95, which Anglicans the world over refer to under its Latin title, Venite ...

St. Benedict’s instruction that this Psalm be recited daily reflects a tradition that clearly predated him. This tradition believed that one of the results of the unity of the vine called Israel with the ecclesial Body of Christ (into which every catechumen is grafted/baptized) is that there are temptations common to both. This is reflected in the demand made by the Divine Office that the Christian begin each day with a prayerful meditation on the profound similitude between Israel’s rebellion and that which lurks deep in every heart. 

It is a profoundly sobering introduction to the reading of Scripture in the daily office.   All those Old Testament readings which again and again narrate Israel's unfaithfulness and rebellion ... the Venite is a daily reminder that this is my story, our story.  This is me, this is us.  It therefore brings me, brings us, brings the Church, again and again to the One who has purposed to "save us from our enemies, and from the hands of all that hate us [sin, death, hell, the Evil One]". It brings me, it brings us, to recall with deep gratitude the gift bestowed in Baptism and renewed in the sacraments of Eucharist and Reconciliation  - "I believe in ... the forgiveness of sins".  This call, this story, and the celebration of Triune God's gift of forgiveness and reconciliation, thus centres the Church on the Paschal Mystery - "suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried.  He descended into hell [so, so much better than the sanitised reference to "the dead"].  The third day he rose again from the dead".

I am grateful for my experience of the richness and variety of CW Daily Prayer - the introductory acclamations, the variety of canticles, the antiphons it provided for the Gospel canticles, each of these enriched my praying of the daily office over the past decade.  Alongside such provision, 1662 can sometimes have a 'naked' feel.  It is, however, the depth of 1662's rhythms that has most struck me, deep rhythms which day by day embody and enact the mystery of faith.


*BCP 1662 ... the purists may not be pleased, but I use the contemporary CofI lectionary for OT and NT readings (obviously not for ordering of the Psalms) and the CofI sanctorale (with some significant enrichments!).  The lectionary in the CofI's BCP 1878 (our revision of 1662) has to be avoided at all costs due to it decision - contra Article 6 - not to include readings from the deuterocanonical books.  I have stuck with the NRSV as it is now the established translation used in CofI public liturgy, ensuring that my reading of Scripture in the daily office coheres with that in public celebrations of Mass and Office.