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. 

Thursday, 23 October 2014

"As Augustine saith": reading Article 29 with Thomas

From Eclectic Orthodoxy, an extract from an essay by Phillip Cary on the Reformed view of Christ's presence in the Holy Eucharist:

A good way to get at this issue is in terms of the Augustinian theory of signs that Catholics, Lutherans and Reformed share. The sacrament is a sign (signum) says Augustine, and the thing (res) it signifies is a spiritual gift of grace. What all parties to the 16th-century debate agree on is that unbelief separates the signum from the res. This means that to receive the sacrament without faith does a person no good, because that way one receives a sign of grace without the grace it signifies. The crucial difference between the Reformed on one side and the Lutherans and Catholics on the other, I suggested in my previous essay, is that the Reformed identify the body and blood of Christ as the res in the sacrament, whereas the Lutherans and Catholics identify them as belonging to the signum as well. So for the Lutherans and Catholics, those who receive the sign of the sacrament without the thing it signifies still receive the body and blood of Christ, but do so to their own harm.

Now, according to one expression of the Anglican tradition, this is a no-brainer for Anglicans.  Article 29, after all, is explicit, isn't it?

The Wicked, and such as be void of a lively faith, although they do carnally and visibly press with their teeth (as Saint Augustine saith) the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ, yet in no wise are they partakers of Christ: but rather, to their condemnation, do eat and drink the sign or Sacrament of so great a thing.

The fact that this Article was only added to the Articles in 1571, nine years after Convocation accepted the Articles on behalf of the ecclesia Anglicana, perhaps adds somewhat to its significance.

A straight-forward expression of Reformed eucharistic theology, yes?

Well, no.  At least, not straight-forward.

The hermeneutical key to Article 29 is the phrase "as Saint Augustine saith".  So what does Augustine say?  Almost certainly, the framers of the Article had in mind words from Augustine's Tractate XXVI on John 6 and the crowd's reference in that passage to Israel being fed by manna.  Augustine quotes 1 Corinthians 10:1-4 on this experience, noting the disobedience of Israel, then states:

The rock was Christ in sign; the real Christ is in the Word and in flesh. And how did they drink? The rock was smitten twice with a rod; the double smiting signified the two wooden beams of the cross. This, then, is the bread that comes down from heaven, that if any man eat thereof, he shall not die. But this is what belongs to the virtue of the sacrament, not to the visible sacrament; he that eats within, not without; who eats in his heart, not who presses with his teeth (Tractate 26.12).

The faithless, then, when they partake of the Eucharist, do not receive "the virtue of the sacrament". Which is what St Thomas Aquinas affirms:

... so sacramental eating, whereby the sacrament only is received without its effect, is divided against spiritual eating, by which one receives the effect of this sacrament, whereby a man is spiritually united with Christ through faith and charity (Summa III 80.1);

Now there is a twofold reality of this sacrament ... one which is signified and contained, namely, Christ Himself; while the other is signified but not contained, namely, Christ's mystical body, which is the fellowship of the saints (Summa III 80.4).

Thomas, therefore, as he emphasises through constant quotation from Augustine, is offering a thoroughly Augustinian account of what happens when the faithless partake of the Eucharist.  As Augustine himself states later in the Tractates on John:

Bear in mind the meaning of the Scripture, Whosoever shall eat the bread or drink the cup of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. And when the apostle said this, he was dealing with those who were taking the body of the Lord, like any other food, in an undiscerning and careless spirit ... he is thus taken to task who does not discern, that is, does not distinguish from the other kinds of food, the body of the Lord (Tractate 62.1).

"As Augustine saith" - "those who were taking the body of the Lord", Augustine says of the faithless partaking of the Eucharist, but not "what belongs to the virtue of the sacrament".  In Thomas' words, it is a "sacramental" but not a "spiritual" partaking, in which participation in "Christ's mystical body, which is the fellowship of the saints" does not occur.  And note here the very similar wording of the second post-communion prayer in 1662:

Almighty and everliving God, we most heartily thank thee, for that thou dost vouchsafe to feed us, who have duly received these holy mysteries, with the spiritual food of the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ; and dost assure us thereby of thy favour and goodness towards us; and that we are very members incorporate in the mystical body of thy Son, which is the blessed company of all faithful people.

Article 29, then, can be read as standing within a tradition of Augustinian Eucharistic teaching which is much more subtle and expansive than a straight-forward reformed v. catholic reading would suggest.  "Yet in no wise are they partakers of Christ", says the Article.  If we read this phrase in the context of the BCP post-communion prayer - "very members incorporate in the mystical body of thy Son" - Thomas would heartily agree. 

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

"A kind of speeches": Augustine and discerning "the real meaning"

A fascinating comment from Augustine in his discussion of Jesus' walking on the water in John 6:

For that ship prefigured the Church while He is on high. For if we do not, in the first place, understand this thing which that ship suffered respecting the Church, those incidents were not significant, but simply transient; but if we see the real meaning of those signs expressed in the Church, it is manifest that the actions of Christ are a kind of speeches (Tractate XXV, 5).

"The real meaning" is not that of a "simply transient" event, which would be "not significant", but rather as a "kind of speech" about the Church.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

"On a walk to Chartres": pastoral practice and the recovery of natural theology

In a recent speech to Christian philantrophists in the States on the nature of Christian engagement with the world, commentator David Brooks did something utterly radical for a New York Times columnist - he quoted Augustine:

It is not physical beauty nor temporal glory nor the brightness of light dear to earthly eyes, nor the sweet melodies of all kinds of songs, nor the gentle odor of flowers, and ointments and perfumes, nor manna or honey, nor limbs welcoming the embraces of the flesh; it is not these I love when I love my God. Yet there is a light I love, and a food, and a kind of embrace when I love my God — a light, voice, odor, food, embrace of my innerness, where my soul is floodlit by light which space cannot contain, where there is sound that time cannot seize, where there is a perfume which no breeze disperses, where there is a taste for food no amount of eating can lessen, and where there is a bond of union that no satiety can part. That is what I love when I love my God.

Brooks then uses Augustine's reflection as a basis to narrate the desires of the 'secular' culture:

... everyone is born with that moral imagination. The heart flies upward, even if you don’t know the categories, even if you’ve never been to church, you’ve never read the Bible, and you don’t exactly know the forms of it. You feel the hunger. And so to me, that is what is out there in the secular culture. An unformed, inarticulated hunger.

Everyone’s on a walk to Chartres. On a walk toward something transcendent, even if they don’t know what it is. Are you building ramps on the way to Chartres or are you building walls?

So is the Church building ramps or walls for that "walk to Chartres"?  Theologian David Cloutier sees this as the question that was wrestled with at the recent Extraordinary Synod:

... the goal is to facilitate the encounter with God, in the person of Jesus and the community of the church. The deliberations of the synod make clear that Francis and many other bishops worry intensely that a focus on certain moral ideals, especially when they sound like a simple “no” to many people, constitutes a barrier to that fundamental spiritual encounter. 

Thus, unlike secular advocacy of this or that stance on an issue, gradualism rests on the more important theological conviction that God is really at work in the world. 

In his The Heart of the Parish, Martin Thornton points to a recovery of a 'natural theology' to articulate this understanding "that God is really at work in the world" and the consequences for pastoral practice:

As soon as an embodied soul acquires self-consciousness a general sacramentalism presents itself to him.  Within or behind or below or beyond his body and the world of nature, a realm of spirit lies veiled.  Beneath sensible experiences lies something else - Plato's ideas, Kant's noumenal, Otto's numinous; the supernatural, the spirit of God.  In the 18th century the deists and rationalists divorced nature from God, and the pantheists equated nature with God.  Natural religion inherited a bad name from which it has never fully recovered.  But we are slowly returning to the position from which natural and revealed religion are to be seen as two parts of a continuous line rather than parallel and opposing lines.  Between natural and revealed religion there is indeed a gap; between faith in the God of nature and faith in his Incarnate Son is a gap which can only be bridged by conversion, which is an act of God himself.  But Jesus Christ is the Son of the Father-creator.  Similarly between the general sacramentalism of the world and the unique sacraments of the Church there is a gap, but there is still an organic relation between the order of nature and the order of grace.  So pastoral practice must seek a relation between all these things.

Now, yes, we might want to revise Thornton's terminology somewhat - the order of nature, after all, is grace, "more a part of creation" as John Milbank states. In the words of De Lubac, "how can a conscious spirit be anything other than an absolute desire for God?"

And here is the challenge of such a renewed 'natural theology' (not the best term) for the contemporary Church.  Whereas 'conservatives' confront the culture with propositional truth and culture wars, a renewed 'natural theology' discerns and rejoices in a created, material order oriented towards desire for the Triune God.  Pastoral practice thus, as Thornton puts it, "must seek a relation between" - rather than a wall separating - the "general sacramentalism" experienced by the culture and its fulfilment in the life of faith and the sacramental order.

For 'liberals', a renewed 'natural theology' poses a no less significant challenge.  Merely affirming the culture is not 'natural theology'.  It utterly fails to encourage, resource and enable the "walk to Chartres".  This walk is demanding, requiring the healing and cleansing of the heart and desires, the recognition of the need for this, the learning of new and strange practices, the disciplines that sustain us as we travel, that bring us closer to Chartres.

Perhaps nothing is so debilitating in contemporary pastoral reflection and theological discernment than the conformity to the culture wars - the assumption that conservative v. liberal defines how the Church can respond to the cultural context of the early 21st century.  Both these options profoundly reinforce the status quo.  'Conservatives' build the wall to keep the unclean away from Chartres.  'Liberals' cannot see the need to build ramps to bring the culture to Chartres.  Thus, in both approaches, life-giving encounter with the Crucified and Risen One in prayer, scripture, creed and sacrament does not occur.

For the Church to enable the citizens and consumers of postmodernity to discern and meaningfully participate in the walk to Chartres, something much more traditional than such 'conservatism' is required, something much more radical than such 'liberalism'. 

Monday, 20 October 2014

"The Church that has doors wide open"

From Pope Francis' closing speech to the Extraordinary Synod:

One, a temptation to hostile inflexibility, that is, wanting to close oneself within the written word, (the letter) and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, by the God of surprises, (the spirit); within the law, within the certitude of what we know and not of what we still need to learn and to achieve. From the time of Christ, it is the temptation of the zealous, of the scrupulous, of the solicitous and of the so-called – today – “traditionalists” and also of the intellectuals.

The temptation to a destructive tendency to goodness [It. buonismo], that in the name of a deceptive mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots. It is the temptation of the “do-gooders,” of the fearful, and also of the so-called “progressives and liberals.”

... this is the Church, the vineyard of the Lord, the fertile Mother and the caring Teacher, who is not afraid to roll up her sleeves to pour oil and wine on people’s wound; who doesn’t see humanity as a house of glass to judge or categorize people. This is the Church, One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and composed of sinners, needful of God’s mercy. This is the Church, the true bride of Christ, who seeks to be faithful to her spouse and to her doctrine. It is the Church that is not afraid to eat and drink with prostitutes and publicans. The Church that has the doors wide open to receive the needy, the penitent, and not only the just or those who believe they are perfect! The Church that is not ashamed of the fallen brother and pretends not to see him, but on the contrary feels involved and almost obliged to lift him up and to encourage him to take up the journey again and accompany him toward a definitive encounter with her Spouse, in the heavenly Jerusalem.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

The surprise of theological development

Theological development is messy, surprising and inevitably produces a reaction.

This dynamic does not fit into easy (and lazy) categories of 'traditional' and 'progressive', 'conservative' and 'liberal'.

+Rowan's majestic Arius: Heresy and Tradition is perhaps the most convicing and dramatic demonstration of this - that theological innovation must be a characteristic of a living, faithful orthodoxy.

We can also, however, point to more recent examples. 

In a recent review of histories of Vatican II, Anglican theologian Paul Avis described Hans Urs von Balthasar as one of those "conservative" theologians who, Avis states, desired "business as usual" after Vatican II.

Balthasar would, I think, have smiled.

At the outset of his Dare We Hope?, Balthasar notes that his writings on the subject of hell have "aroused the ire of right-wing newspapers".  In a footnote, he quotes from the response of one such journal:

The eye of the Inquisition remain fixed upon me: "We will be giving further attention to the topic and the arguments of von Balthasar".  The surprise of both these journals shows that they have never given any attention to my lengthier publications, in which they surely could have long since found hundreds of pieces of firewood for my stake.

Despite the intense condemnations, the understanding of hell in contemporary catholic theology (Roman and Anglican) has been significantly shaped by Balthasar's innovative and profound re-reading of Scripture and Tradition.  His account of Christ's descent into hell in Mysterium Paschale has also provided the most gripping contemporary catholic meditation on cross and resurrection.

So, yes, theological development is messy and surprising, usually condemned and - most importantly of all - profoundly encriching of the Church's life and witness.