Friday, 22 August 2014

Why Church? To (verily and indeed) participate in the divine nature

Some of the Acts 8 moment blogforce responses to 'Why the Church?' that have caught my eye:

Before the shape of our doctrine came a command to take and eat as the first Eucharists were offered in Remembrance before the books of the Bible were chosen and the Nicene Creed was written.  In that Feast is offered the form, function, and hope of the Church.  The Church, existing before humanity even realized it, offers the hope of partaking in the more that is of God.  So we pray for more.

We exist to pray.

The Sub-dean's Stall

While kickboxing classes may end, fad spiritual practices may fall out of favor, and we may fail in our own private devotions; the Church will continue until our Lord descends upon us once again.  And no matter how far we may travel from the community of the faithful, unlike any human institution, our baptisms guarantee us a place at that great table where we feast with our Lord both here on earth and in the life to come.  The Church is our home, the Church is our true family, and it is through the Church that we commune with that which is, which was, and that which is to come.

The Young Curmudgeon Priest

At church, we meet in the greatest mystery of all.  The mystery that can love me, a sinner, in the midst of my sin, my self-righteousness, my selfishness, my overall jerkiness.  The mystery that didn’t excuse my bad behavior, that helped me feel it, own it, repent, and forgive myself.  The mystery that held me in the palm of its hand during my father’s death, the mystery that brings grace to those in the midst of great suffering.  It is the mystery of catholic, universal love in the name of Christ.  That is why we need church, not to solve our problems, make us better people, teach us values, or give us answers, but to give us a space and a place to live with the mystery.   In the liturgy, I hear it, I feel it, I smell it, I eat it, I drink it, I bask in it, I love it.  I meet others, also imperfect, also beautiful, also beloved children of God, and I learn to love them, too. At church, the mystery of the grace of God in Christ loves me back.

Joy in the Journey

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

"I do not fear, because I love": Bernard of Clairvaux on how the Word persuades

Now, that I may take the words to myself -- which is the safest course -- is it not you, my soul, who left your first husband, with whom it went well with you, and cast aside your loyalty by going after lovers? And now that you have chosen to commit fornication with them and have been cast aside by them, do you have the effrontery, the insolence, to return to him whom you spurned in your arrogance? Do you seek the light when you are only fit to be hidden, and run to the Bridegroom when you are more deserving of blows than of embraces? It will be a wonder if you do not meet the judge rather than the bridegroom. Happy the person who hears his soul replying to these reproaches, `I do not fear, because I love; and I could not love at all if I were not loved; therefore this is love.' One who is loved has nothing to fear. Let those fear who do not love; they must always live in fear of retribution. Since I love, I cannot doubt that I am loved, any more than I can doubt that I love. Nor can I fear to look on his face, since I have sensed his tenderness. In what have I known it? In this -- not only has he sought me as I am, but he has shown me tenderness, and caused me to seek him with confidence. How can I not respond to him when he seeks me, since I respond to him in tenderness? How can he be angry with me for seeking him, when he overlooked the contempt I showed for him? He will not drive away someone who seeks him, when he sought someone who spurned him. The spirit of the Word is gentle, and brings me gentle greetings, speaking to me persuasively of the zeal and desire of the Word, which cannot be hidden from him. He searches the deep things of God, and knows his thoughts -- thoughts of peace and not of vengeance. How can I fail to be inspired to seek him, when I have experienced his mercy and been assured of his peace?

Bernard of Clairvaux, Homily 84 on the Song of Songs.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Desert wisdom, sacramental reconciliation and the "discreet and learned Minister of God's Word"

And because it is requisite, that no man should come to the holy Communion, but with a full trust in God's mercy, and with a quiet conscience; therefore if there be any of you, who by this means cannot quiet his own conscience herein, but requireth further comfort or counsel, let him come to me, or to some other discreet and learned Minister of God's Word, and open his grief; that by the ministry of God's holy Word he may receive the benefit of absolution, together with ghostly counsel and advice, to the quieting of his conscience, and avoiding of all scruple and doubtfulness.

From the Exhortation in The Order for the Administration of the Holy Communion, 1662.

What does "discreet and learned Minister of God's Word" mean?  What is the significance for sacramental reconciliation of this disposition in the priest? Perhaps we can turn to the wisdom of the Desert Fathers and Mothers to understand:

An old man used to tell how one day someone committed as serious sin.  Filled with compunction, he went to confess it to an old man; but he did not say what he had done, simply, "If a thought of this kind comes upon someone, can he be saved?" And the old man, who was without experience of discernment, said to him, "He has lost his soul."

When he heard this, the brother said to himself, "If I am lost, I may as well return to the world."  Now as he was returning, he decided to go and manifest his thoughts to Abba Sylvain.  Now this Abba Sylvain possessed great spiritual discernment.  Coming up to him, the brother did not say what he had done, but proceeded in the same way, "If thoughts of this kind come upon someone, can he be saved?" The father opened his mouth, and beginning with the Scriptures, he attempted to show him that condemnation is not the lot of those who have these thoughts.  We he heard this, the brother's hope revived and he also told him what he had done.  Like a good doctor, the father, with the help of the Scriptures, tended his soul, showing him that repentance is possible for those who seriously turn to God.

Later on, our abba went to visit the other father, and related all to this to him, and said, "Look how he despaired of himself and was on the point of returning to the world.  He has become a star in the midst of his brethren."

I have related this story so that we may know what danger there is in manifestation, whether of thoughts or of sins, to those who do not have discernment.

(The reading for the Monday after Trinity 9 in Celebrating the Seasons, taken from Benedicta Ward SLG The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers.)

Monday, 18 August 2014

"A step towards encountering the holy mystery of God"

Rooted in the Christian tradition and equipped with scholarly tools, those of us in the theological guild think about the meaning of faith and the way it is practiced. The purpose is to shed more light on the gospel, so it can be lived out with deeper understanding and vibrant love of God and neighbor. My scholarship has engaged a variety of subjects, such as language about God, the meaning of Jesus, the communion of saints, and evolution and creation, among others. Whatever the subject, for me teaching, writing, and public lecturing have always been an invitation to students, readers, and listeners to “Come and see,” as John’s gospel put it (Jn 1:39). Vatican II taught that “The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power” (DH 1). So come and see, think, raise questions, make connections, learn the tradition, see for yourselves how beautiful the faith is, as a step toward encountering and living out the love of the holy mystery of God.

From Sister Elizabeth Johnson's recent speech to the US Roman Catholic Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

"The feelings of awe, mystery": Newman, Tracts and the imagination

Over recent weeks, catholicity and covenant has been reflecting on John Mason Neale's statement "that the Tractarian writers missed one great principle - namely, the influence of aesthetics". Last week we saw how Tract 34 might suggest otherwise, laying a theological and pastoral foundation for the 19th century catholic renewal's retrieval of a catholic aesthetic.  To this we might also add earlier discussion of Tract 80, and the use of reserve/strangeness to "occupy the imagination and affections".

In Apologia Pro Vita Sua (via the Newman Blog) Newman quotes from a letter he wrote at the time of the controversy over Tract 90, noting how the Tracts "went beyond that particular kind of defence which high-and-dry men thought perfection":

While I had confidence in the Via Media, and thought that nothing could overset it, I did not mind laying down large principles, which I saw would go further than was commonly perceived. I considered that to make the Via Media concrete and substantive, it must be much more than it was in outline; that the Anglican Church must have a ceremonial, a ritual, and a fulness of doctrine and devotion, which it had not at present, if it were to compete with the Roman Church with any prospect of success. Such additions would not remove it from its proper basis, but would merely strengthen and beautify it: such, for instance, would be confraternities, particular devotions, reverence for the Blessed Virgin, prayers for the dead, beautiful churches, munificent offerings to them and in them, monastic houses, and many other observances and institutions, which I used to say belonged to us as much as to Rome, though Rome had appropriated them and boasted of them, by reason of our having let them slip from us. The principle, on which all this turned, is brought out in one of the Letters I published on occasion of Tract 90. "The age is moving," I said, "towards something; and most unhappily the one religious communion among us, which has of late years been practically in possession of this something, is the Church of Rome. She alone, amid all the errors and evils of her practical system, has given free scope to the feelings of awe, mystery, tenderness, reverence, devotedness, and other feelings which may be especially called Catholic. The question then is, whether we shall give them up to the Roman Church or claim them for ourselves".

There is here a recognition that the doctrinal basis of catholic Anglicanism, present in the pre-Movement high church/'Orthodox' school - as Nockles has demonstrated, considerably more vibrant than Tractarian historiography allowed - and renewed by the Tracts, was well established.  This is followed, however, by an affirmation of the significance of a catholic aesthetic to form a catholic imagination:

the feelings of awe, mystery, tenderness, reverence, devotedness, and other feelings which may be especially called Catholic.

Rather than setting Newman apart from the other authors of the Tracts, this clearly coheres with the thinking of, for example, Tracts 34 and 80: that a catholic aesthetic was necessary for capturing the cultural imagination. 

What is the relevance of this debate for contemporary catholic Anglicanism?  It is that the most significant steps we take in terms of evangelisation and nurturing disciples, is in the realm of aesthetics, in the fostering of a sacramental imagination in order to grasp the cultural imagination.  It is that while our doctrinal reflection is important, what makes disciples is encounter - "the feelings of awe, mystery, tenderness, reverence, devotedness".

(The painting is Sanctuary Light, 2013, the interior of All Saints, Margaret Street, by Timothy Betjeman.)

Friday, 15 August 2014

"It's about the whole of reality": Dormition and the hope of glory

A beautiful reflection by Orthodox theologian Fr. Thomas Hopko on today's feast:

St. Irenaeus said in the 3rd Century, “Christ became everything that we are, so that we could be everything that He is.” St. Athanasius the Great said, “God became human, so human beings could be made God, could be made divine by grace.” St. Basil said, “A human being is a creature with a commandment to become divine by faith and by grace;” to be what Christ is.

Even in both His natures, Christ is both fully divine and fully human. We are fully human, but we come divine by grace. We’re not God. We’re mere mortals just like Mary is. She’s a mere mortal, but she shows that that’s what our destiny is. Our future is exactly that, to be deified with Christ ...

And this is what we celebrate in the festival on the 15th of August. It’s the death of Mary, her resurrection, her glorification in the arms of Christ at the right hand of the Father ...

So this festival is about everyone and everything. It’s about the whole of reality. It’s a celebration of the proof that the Gospel is real and true. It’s a celebration of the victory of God in Christ for the sake of us mere mortal human beings. And this is given to us on the 15th of August when we celebrate the Dormition, the falling asleep in Christ, and her glorification in Christ, held in His arms in the presence of God of His own mother, and in a sense our mother since the cross, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Holy Theotokos, our sister in Christ, our co-Christian in Him and in many ways because of Him also our Mother together with the Church itself and the Holy Spirit itself in which we enter into communion with God our Father through the Son Jesus Christ by the intercession and by the example of his own mother, Mary. This is our celebration and the Dormition of Mary on the 15th of August.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

"One of us": the eve of the Falling Asleep of the Blessed Virgin Mary

From Fr. Alexander Schmemann in his Celebration of Faith, Volume 3 reflecting on the Orthodox liturgy celebrating the "deathless Dormition":

But what is the meaning of this contradictory, apparently absurd conjunction of words? In the Dormition, the whole joyful mystery of this death is revealed to us and becomes our joy, for Mary the Virgin Mother is one of us ...

Here [in the Dormition], death is conquered from within, freed from all that fills it with horror and hopelessness. Death itself becomes triumphant life. Death becomes the "bright dawn of the mystical day." Thus, the feast has no sadness, no funeral dirges, no grief but only light and joy. It's as if in approaching the door of our inevitable death, we should suddenly find it flung open, with light pouring from the approaching victory, from the approaching reign of God's Kingdom.