Tuesday, 30 June 2015

"As with a seraph's robe of fire": Keble, the 'secular', and glory

In his poems for the Third and Fourth Sundays after Trinity, days of early summer, Keble sets forth a vision of re-enchantment.  This vision is contrasted with the "Hateful spell of sin" (Third Sunday after Trinity) and "Reason's spells" (Fourth).  The former darkens the imagination, dulling us to the mystery of Presence and Gift, the latter cannot "disclose" the miracle of the Incarnation, of the material being taken up into the Divine.

Against the "Hateful spell of sin", Keble on the Third Sunday after Trinity - reflecting on Luke 25:10 - points to the nearness of the holy angels:

Nor is the dream untrue; for all around
The heavens are watching with their thousand eyes,
We cannot pass our guardian angel's bound,
Resign'd or sullen, he will hear our sighs.

He in the mazes of the budding wood
Is near, and mourns to see our thankless glance
Dwell coldly, where the fresh green earth is strew'd
With the first flowers that lead the vernal dance.

Here, the holy angels are not the only signs and gifts of enchantment: they dwell amidst the "budding wood ... fresh green earth ... first flowers", the "vernal dance" of spring and summer.  Seen and unseen, together rejoicing in Gift and communion.

"Nor is the dream untrue."  Keble returns to this theme on the Fourth Sunday of Trinity, a meditation on Romans 8:19-22, the creation's longing.  The dream of Trinity III is no mere poet's dream - the dream originates from Elsewhere:

It was not then a poet's dream,
An idle song vaunt of song,
Such as beneath the moon's soft gleam
On vacant fancies throng;

Which bids us see in heaven and earth,
In all fair things around,
Strong yearning for a blest new birth
With sinless glories crown'd;

Which bids us hear, at each sweet pause
From care and want and toil,
When dewy eve her curtain draws
Over the day's turmoil,

In the low chant of wakeful birds,
In the deep weltering flood,
In whispering leaves, these solemn words -
"God made us all for good."

Keble describes this "good" in quite striking terms. Because of the Incarnation - "The hour that saw from opening heaven/Redeeming glory stream" - the material has been transfigured:

Thenceforth, to eyes of high desire,
The meanest things below,
As with a seraph's robe of fire
Invested, burn and glow.

The Incarnation, then, frees us from two spells - that of "Hateful sin", dulling our sense of gratitude and delight in the created order; and "Reason", unable to "disclose/The gracious birth" that is the Word taking up the material into a glory "Beyond the summer hues of even/Beyond the mid-day beam".

As catholicity and covenant noted previously, reflecting on The Christian Year is not a call for it to appear in contemporary homilies, or to be handed out to students.  It is, rather, to suggest the need for culturally-appropriate means of celebrating the vision which animated Keble - of a grace-drenched created order, in which "the meanest things ... burn and glow" with a glory beyond our imagining.

The evangelistic and apologetic significance of this may perhaps be detected in recent comments from Marilynne Robinson regarding the meaningless of the term 'secular':

Typology was or is one way of understanding and experiencing an articulate presence of God, the Creator pervasively present in the natural world in what he gives us to understand through it. This again raises questions about the notion of the secular, the worldly, as existing in opposition to the sacred. If the world is the Lord’s, if it speaks of him, if it is sustained by him in every moment, then, granting the historical importance of the idea of secularism, I cannot in good faith proceed as if it has meaning for me, or as if I find it at all appropriate as a term of judgment brought to bear against our period or any other.

Keble celebrates the beauty and glory of the created order as icon, as participating in the life of the Divine.  In Robinson's words, he does not argue against the secular - he proceeds as if it has no meaning, he rejoices because the worldly is sacred.  And there we might see something of the Church's hope in a secular age. No age, no place is secular. 'Secular' is necessarily a meaningless phrase because this world is filled with glory.  "As with a seraph's robe of fire."

Monday, 29 June 2015

"What was happening with the angel's help was real"

Peter ... did not realize that what was happening with the angel's help was real.

Acts 12:9, from the readings at the Holy Eucharist on the feast of Saints Peter and Paul.

Rowan Williams once argued that to reword a poem is to change its meaning. A poem enters into the world to expose the strangeness of language and the mystery of reality. Angels are the poems of scripture. They enter into a situation to expose the strangeness of God’s activity and the mystery of creation. We cannot remove them from the narratives without the internal sense of the story breaking down. To demythologise them is to destroy their meaning.

The future of angelology, then, must be in attentiveness to scripture, and the way that angels interrupt the linkages of immanent historical causality. We can speak of them only as we speak of any mystery: as pure poetry.

Steve Wright 'The Future of Angelology' on Faith & Theology. 

A few years ago, I heard an interview with the British theologian John Milbank, where he said, "I believe in all this fantastic stuff. I'm really bitterly opposed to… disenchantment in the modern churches, including I think among most modern evangelicals."

He told a story about the Nottingham diocese in England, which he described as "a very evangelical diocese." They had received a request to participate in a radio show about angels. They surveyed their clergy, asking, "Is there anyone around who still believes in angels enough to talk about this?"

Milbank chastised the diocese saying, "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."
Tish Harrison Warren 'Angels We Ignore On High: Reintroducing evangelicals to the heavenly host' in Christianity Today 20th December 2013.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Neither mapped nor catalogued

From Mariano Magrassi's Praying the Bible: An Introduction to Lectio Divina, a wonderful quotation from John Henry Newman on the nature of Scripture in the mind of the patristic witnesses:

It is in point to notice also the structure and style of Scripture, a structure so unsystematic and various, and a style so figurative and indirect, that no one would presume at first sight to say what is in it and what is not.  It cannot, as it were be mapped, or its contents catalogued; but after all our diligence, to the end of our lives and the end of the Church, it must be an unexplored and unsubdued land, with heights and valleys, forests and streams, on the right and left of our path and close about us, full of concealed wonders and choice treasures.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

The hidden God and the Forerunner

Why a Forerunner?  Because, says Augustine, we, being by blinded by pride, could only be healed by the humility and hiddenness of God, a humility and hiddenness which required a Forerunner as witness:

The wood of His humiliation was needful to you. For you had become swollen with pride, and had been cast out far from that fatherland ... On account of you He was crucified, to teach you humility ... because if He should come as God, He would not be recognized. For if He should come as God, He would not come to those who were not able to see God. For not according to His Godhead does He either come or depart; since He is everywhere present, and is contained in no place. But, according to what did He come? He appeared as a man. 

Therefore, because He was so man, that the God lay hid in Him, there was sent before Him a great man, by whose testimony He might be found to be more than man. And who is this? He was a man. And how could that man speak the truth concerning God? He was sent by God. What was he called? Whose name was John. Wherefore did he come? He came for a witness, that he might bear witness concerning the light, that all might believe through him. What sort of man was he who was to bear witness concerning the light? Something great was that John, vast merit, great grace, great loftiness!

... The true light, therefore, enlightened him by whom He desired Himself to be pointed out. Understand, beloved, for He came to infirm minds, to wounded hearts, to the gaze of dim-eyed souls. For this purpose had He come.

Tractates on John, 2:5-7

(The painting is Artemisia Gentileschi, The Birth of St John the Baptist, 1635.)

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Choral Evensong, beauty and the cultural imagination

It was also noted that even in an increasingly secularised Europe, cathedral style celebration of Evening Prayer – Evensong – are alive and flourishing in English cathedrals and major parish churches, despite being a very ancient and traditional form of prayer. The committee noted that this expression of liturgy, deeply rooted in our common heritage, may be saying something important about our evangelisation strategy.

From the blog of the Church of England Bishop in Europe, on the recently published French Anglican-Roman Catholic study of the daily office.

Interest in Christianity continues to decline, according to the latest surveys. So it seems especially paradoxical that an album showcasing the Catholic Church’s most traditional form of liturgical prayer would generate such interest.

"Churches may be in decline, but Gregorian chant beats secular competition", The Washington Post 16th June 2015, on the recently released CD of chant by Benedictine community of Norcia.

 ... younger listeners are more open to eclectic music than even in 1994.

Monica Fitzgibbons, head of the production company which released the CD, referring to 'Chant', released in 1994 to much acclaim and commerical success. Quoted in The Washington Post story.

Someone who is listening to this without any background, will be drawn, I think, just by the beauty of it ... Beauty, and — I suppose people might say it’s somewhat ethereal. ... They can connect it with some sort of spiritual experience, even without being able to name what that spiritual experience might be .

Fr, Cassian Folsom, O.S.B., founding prior of the community of Norcia, on the CD.  Quoted in The Washington Post story.

... when the desire to create and contemplate beauty manages to overcome reductionism through a kind of salvation which occurs in beauty and in those who behold it.

Laudato si, 112

At the end, we will find ourselves face to face with the infinite beauty of God (cf. 1 Cor 13:12), and be able to read with admiration and happiness the mystery of the universe, which with us will share in unending plenitude. Even now we are journeying towards the sabbath of eternity, the new Jerusalem, towards our common home in heaven. Jesus says: “I make all things new” (Rev 21:5). Eternal life will be a shared experience of awe, in which each creature, resplendently transfigured, will take its rightful place and have something to give those poor men and women who will have been liberated once and for all.

Laudato si, 243

Monday, 22 June 2015

"This our David also did": an ancient story and cosmic victory

The title of this Psalm is brief in number of words, but heavy in the weight of its mysteries. To David himself against Goliath. This battle was fought in the time of our fathers, and you, beloved, remember it with me from Holy Scripture ... David ... having smitten and overthrown him, he took the enemy's sword, and with it cut off his head. This our David also did, He overthrew the devil with his own weapons.

Augustine on Ps. 144.

It was noticeable at yesterday's early Eucharist just how attentive the congregation was to that very long reading from 1 Samuel, the continuous variant offered by RCL.  The story of David and Goliath is, well, a good story.  And as a good story, it holds our attention as we hear afresh details that we have forgotten or previously overlooked.

What came to mind as I read it was the 7th century Anglo-Saxon poem, The Dream of the Rood.  I Samuel says of Goliath's response to the approaching David:

When the Philistine looked and saw David, he disdained him, for he was only a youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance (I Samuel 17:42).

In The Dream of the Rood, we read of Christ approaching the Cross:

Then the young hero (who was God almighty)
Got ready, resolute and strong in heart.

The Cross continues to speak:

I trembled as the warrior embraced me.

Not only is it this portrayal of Christ as a young warrior in which echoes can be found.

David ... took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the wadi (I Samuel 17:40).

The Dream of the Rood begins with narrator's vision of the Cross:

Towering in the sky suffused with light,
Brightest of beams; and all that beacon was
Covered with gold. The corners of the earth
Gleamed with fair jewels, just as there were five
Upon the cross-beam.

The point of this comparison with The Dream of the Rood is caught in that extract from the opening lines - the Cross is "covered with gold".  The Cross is where the young warrior triumphs, just as David did.

It is this understanding of the Cross - as the occasion and means of victory - that Ben Myers has recently emphasised is in danger of being lost.  He points to the rationale behind the rich symbolism of patristic approaches to the Cross:

It is true that the cross was a brute fact in history. It was wood planted in the earth. But a merely wooden cross would be a half-truth. It would show the fact of Jesus’ death without conveying its meaning. Gregory’s [of Nyssa] references to St Paul are admittedly fanciful, but he is nevertheless quite right to assume that there was never a stage of early Christianity in which the cross was not already a theological symbol.

Neither St Paul nor the writers of the Gospels regard the cross as a brute fact. The cross could not at any rate have been a brute fact for anybody in the first century. Crucifixion was never just an unpleasant way to die. It was a symbol of Roman power. That symbol was every bit as public and as well-understood as the military standards borne by legions of soldiers. The first Christians had to think symbolically about the cross, since their Messiah had already been forcefully absorbed into the symbolic system of imperial power. One way or another the death of Jesus meant something, and what it meant was symbolised by a cross. 

The tactics of the early Christian apologists are strange to us now. Nobody today would explain the significance of the cross by comparing it to a ship’s mast or the unity of the four cosmic elements or the shape of a person’s nose. But even at their most fanciful, these apologetic experiments contain an important half-truth: the cross is more than a brute fact in history; it is part of a system of meaning involving God and creation and everything.

Myers then contrasts this with contemporary theological preoccupations:

If one strand of the history of early Christianity is the story of the transformation of the cross from a Roman symbol into a Christian symbol, then a strand of the history of modern theology is the story of a concerted effort to strip the cross of its accumulated layers of meaning [the gold of The Dream]. What modern theologians want is a naked cross, the brute fact of wood planted in earth and soaked with human blood. If it is to be a symbol at all, let it be a symbol not of life and religion and culture but of power and oppression.

The Romans invented the cross and the Christians stole it from them. Modern theologians have returned it to its original owners.

This is where the story of David and Goliath functions as divine pedagogy - it orients us towards thinking of a young warrior, through wood and the figure five, overcoming the enemy.  It orients us towards perceiving victory in the unlikelist of circumstances.

Or, in the words of Augustine:

This our David also did, He overthrew the devil with his own weapons.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

"There is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf": Laudato si and the Sufi mystic

It can be said that Sufism and the mystical currents of Shi'ism have at many times crucially tempered the more legal dispositions of Islamic faith and practice ... It can be argued, then, that Aquinas warded off the threat of duality posed by those Islamic philosophies with whcih he was familiar - even if one should point out that various mystically Sh'ite and Sufi figures later offered more integrating perspectives.

John Milbank Beyond Secular Order, pp. 17 & 27.

[Referring to the Regensberg address] I do not believe that Benedict would himself agree that all Islamic theologies ascribe to the view that God has an entirely arbitrary will. This is certainly not true of many important Shi'ite and Sufi traditions, nor would it accurately describe perhaps the greatest Islamic thinkers, Ibn Arabi and Mulla Sadra. Indeed they share many things in common with great Christian thinkers like Augustine, Maximus, Aquinas and Eckhart - a fact that stems from a shared synthesis of Hebraic and neoplatonic elements.

John Milbank 'Christianity, the Enlightenment and Islam' (2010)

233. The universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely. Hence, there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face. [159]

[159] The spiritual writer Ali al-Khawas stresses from his own experience the need not to put too much distance between the creatures of the world and the interior experience of God. As he puts it: “Prejudice should not have us criticize those who seek ecstasy in music or poetry. There is a subtle mystery in each of the movements and sounds of this world. The initiate will capture what is being said when the wind blows, the trees sway, water flows, flies buzz, doors creak, birds sing, or in the sound of strings or flutes, the sighs of the sick, the groans of the afflicted...” (EVA DE VITRAY-MEYEROVITCH [ed.], Anthologie du soufisme, Paris 1978, 200).

Laudato si 

Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change cited many of the usual sources: the Bible, his predecessors in the Vatican and his namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi. It also cites ninth century mystical Muslim poet Ali-al-Khawas.

It’s unusual for a pope to cite a Sufi poet, but those who have known Francis since his days in the slums of Argentina say that shows his personal touch on the encyclical.

“He’s trying to foster ecumenical and interfaith dialogue about shared spirituality,” Father Augusto Zampini, an Argentinian priest and theological advisor to the Catholic Agency For Overseas Development, tells TIME.

Aisha Boori 'Meet the Muslim Mystic Pope Francis Cited in His Encyclical'  TIME 18th June 2015