23 08 2014

Judge not, lest ye be judged. -Mt 7:1

Elder Paisios (1924-1994) warns us not to judge others because we don’t know their hearts and are so often wrong ourselves. When he was a young man, he sang in the choir at his church. One Sunday, there was a woman at church who couldn’t take her eyes off of him during the entire liturgy. She just kept staring at him. Paisios began to feel uncomfortable with all this attention from the woman. Her focus was to be on the liturgy, on God, not on young men in the choir! It was shameless the way she kept staring. He wished he could disappear and escape her gaze.

After the divine liturgy, Paisios was informed by the priest that the two of them had been invited for lunch — to the home of this very same woman! Paisios wished very much to get out of it, but there was no way, not when the invitation included the priest! Therefore, he reluctantly went to lunch.

After lunch, the woman said she wanted to show them something. She went off into the next room and returned with a photograph of her son — who looked almost exactly like Paisios! Her son had died in the war, and when she saw Paisios in the choir, it was like having him back again.

You never know what someone else is thinking, do you?

I judge people a lot — for various reasons. Most often because I’m smarter than you. Sometimes because I have better taste than you in books/music/art/films. Maybe because I’m of a better class than yours. Or my theology is more accurate. Or maybe I live by higher standards than you do. Or you complain too much. Or, quite frankly, you are way too judgemental. Really, I have all sorts of reasons to judge.

This story from Elder Paisios reminds me to tame the thoughts and stay humble, hard though that is!

The Inheritance of Rome by Chris Wickham — my review available now!

22 08 2014

So, although I do have an actual article somewhere out there in editorial limbo, my first real, live book review has recently made an appearance in the online St. Francis Magazine. The book I review is the second volume of the Penguin History of Europe, The Inheritance of Rome: Europe from 400 to 1000 by Chris Wickham. I excerpt for you the opening paragraph, hoping you will go check out the whole thing!

Chris Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome: Europe from 400 to 1000 is a tour-de-force of narrative history, bringing together scholarship from economic history, political history, military history, archaeology, literature, material culture, and other available evidence for the late and post-Roman
period not only in Europe, as the title claims, but in the whole Mediterranean world and the Middle East. Wickham starts us off by demolishing the grand myths of nationalism and modernism — the first that the states we see forming after Rome are the same thing as modern nation states that inhabit the same geographic space, the second that this was a ‘Dark Age’. Instead, he seeks to understand a transformative, influential period of history from the viewpoint of the men and women who lived it, not from any grand narrative, nor from a sense of inevitability. The story of this period as Wickham tells it is a good ride.

Ongoing intellectual life in the late 4th and 5th centuries

19 08 2014

Taking a brief break from reading about Roman law in under the Theodosians to write this. During an earlier break, I lurked a bit at Amazon, peering at reviews of AD 381. In the comments to one of the reviews, the author writes:

The main problem I have with this era of late Antiquity is that it is so difficult to find evidence for the continuance of creative intellectual activity and lots of evidence that it was ‘closed down’.

Assuming Freeman means life after 381, I am surprised!

Immediately upon reading that statement, I turned to my left and beheld City of God by St Augustine, famously written after the year 410. If ever Late Antiquity produced a creative intellectual endeavour, it is City of God. Not, mind you, that Augustine is the only creative, clever thinker out there in the period.

Down the shelf from Augustine I have volumes by St Gregory of Nazianzus, or ‘the Theologian’, who wrote subtle works of theology and profound works of poetry. Next to him I have his friend, St Basil of Caesarea, an equally creative thinker. The third of the Cappadocian triad, Basil’s brother St Gregory of Nyssa, should not go without mention — a man whose creative force and dynamic intellect are quite popular at present. Indeed, I would argue that one of the things that makes the Cappadocians special is their status as disciples of Origen who produce a vibrant — rather than rote, sterile, dead — interpretation of Nicene orthodoxy.

Perhaps the practicioners and champions of orthodoxy are not creative enough. Well, then, we need look no further than Evagrius of Pontus, another Origenist with Cappadocian connections who settled amongst the Egyptian monks and wrote daring, dangerous treatises on asceticism, prayer, and mystical theology that would get him into posthumous trouble.

In a book I read about Carolingians, the argument was put forward that an increase in heresy trials is evidence of greater intellectual activity — the more people experiment with philosophy and theology, the more likely they are to get into trouble with the church. The fifth century, therefore, supplies us with an ample supply of creative thinking as various people attempt to work through the philosophical and theological issues surrounding the accepted Nicene orthodoxy of the person of Christ — Theodore of Mopsuestia, who was in some ways a successor to Diodore of Tarsus (d. 390) and Theodoret of Cyrrhus stand out among those who got into trouble with official orthodoxy, while Cyril of Alexandria, for all his forceful personality and rigorous orthodoxy, was not uncreative himself. It has been argued, as well, that Leo the Great was a creative personality in his synthesis of the western tradition into what became Chalcedonian orthodoxy.

Avitus of Vienne was still writing respectable poetry, as was Sedulius. I’m even going to go out on a limb and say that Sidonius was not entirely lacking in his own creative impulse as a poet. I think the composition of panegyric poetry is a bold, daring thing that requires a certain amount of creative genius to remain true to one’s own voice as a poet while praising the imperial recipient of the text.

The lay writer Prosper of Aquitaine produces a lot of creative output, not only in his theological support of Augustine, but also in his epitome and continuation of Jerome’s translation of Eusebius’s chronicle and his verse composition.

Indeed, it strikes me that the fourth and fifth centuries are an epoch of ongoing literary and philosophical/theological production in the Roman Empire, and while pagan thought may decline after 381 due to increasing restrictions on polytheist practice, to argue that orthodox Christians are unoriginal is quite silly, to say the least — for would not many a polytheist philosopher, regardless of how creative he really was, maintain that he was simply reiterating or building upon the ancient traditions of Plato, Aristotle, Diogenes, Zeno?

Perhaps what makes later fourth- and fifth-century Christian writing seem uncreative to us is that much of what survives was revered as centrally orthodox in years to come and has been oft-repeated by the intellectually uncreative. Sitting at this end of Christendom, Christianity seems traditional and hidebound. But what if, at the other end, it was ancient polytheism that did?

And, no doubt, I’ve misunderstood Freeman entirely. In which case, this was simply an engaging little mental exercise for me. Back to Roman law.

Readily available mediaeval mystics

19 08 2014

Angelic Choir by St Hildegard

Carl Trueman, back in 2008, penned a little piece about why evangelicals should read the mediaeval mystics. One of the reasons put forward is the fact that our friends who aren’t Christian but with an interest in spirituality are likely to be probing the mystics who are readily available from publishers such as Penguin as opposed to some obscure or pricey Christian publishing house.

The question arises: Which mystics can you or your friends easily get a hold of without breaking the bank or darkening the door of a theological bookshop? Here are a few, drawing from Penguin Classics, Oxford World’s Classics, and the HarperCollins Spiritual Classics series. I admit to my knowledge being incomplete; perhaps other popular translations exist!

In chronological order:

The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks, trans. Benedicta Ward, published by Penguin. More Late Antique in origin and ascetic in focus, this text is nonetheless one of the streams out of which mediaeval mystical theology and monastic thought flow, although a dense and difficult one.

The Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anselm with the Proslogion published by Penguin. When I read St Anselm’s 11th-century meditations, I can’t help but feel there is some element of the mystical to his devotional writings.

The Cistercian World: Monastic Writings of the Twelfth Century, published by Penguin. This anthology keeps tantalising me; from it, I have read some of St Bernard of Clairvaux’s sermons on Song of Songs, one of the most influential texts of mediaeval mysticism that made St Bernard Dante’s guide to the uncreated light and who was regarded by Thomas Merton as the last of the Fathers. Note there is also the volume Selected Works of Bernard of Clairvaux from HarperCollins Spiritual Classics.

Selected Writings of Hildegard von Bingen, published by Penguin. (12th c.) St Hildegard was almost the foundress of mediaeval women mystics in the 1100s, experiencing visions from an early age, and becoming abbess of a Benedictine nunnery. Her Scivias are commentaries upon the visions she had, but she also composed sermons, letters to important men, music, and art.

The Life of Christina of Markyate, published by Oxford. This is the story of a 12th-century woman who maintains her virginity in the face of incredible odds and goes on to become a prioress and have visions from God.

Francis & Clare of Assisi: Selected Writings from HarperCollins Spiritual Classics. Works from the 13th-century mystic founders of the Franciscan movement, some ascetic, some poetic, some mystical.

The Life of St. Francis by St Bonaventure, from HarperCollins Spiritual Classics. Bonaventure was himself a mystical theologian, and it is in the stories about St Francis of Assisi that we see the great saint’s life as a mystic most clearly.

Selected Writings of Meister Eckhart, published by Penguin. Meister Eckhart was a 13th/14th-century German mystic who has been recommended to me but of whose work I have read none. I understand that he is deeply profound but some of his ideas were condemned by the Church.

The Cloud of Unknowing, published by Penguin; also available in the series HarperCollins Spiritual Classics. This anonymous English work of the later 14th century is one of the many frequently-cited mystical books I’ve never read but want to …

Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich, published by Penguin; also available from Oxford World’s Classics. Julian (14th-15th c) is another major figure amongst women mystics of the Middle Ages of whom I’ve written here before. This book is a mature reflection of a visionary experience Lady Julian experienced in the 1300s.

The Book of Margery Kempe, published by Penguin. Also available from Oxford. Kempe travelled all over Christendom to pilgrimage sites and had some ecstatic visions and dreams in the 14th/15th centuries. Full disclosure: Some people find her annoying.

The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis, published by Penguin. This 15h-century treatise is not, strictly speaking, a mystical work. However, it is one of the most popular works of mediaeval spirituality ever written, and its ascetic bent is an essential pairing to the mystical enterprise.

Of course, many other mediaeval mystics and spiritual theologians have been translated into English, available in series such as The Classics of Western Spirituality or Cistercian Studies, but these are the ones I’ve found from popular publishers at affordable prices available at normal bookshops…

Seeing Christ in Aberdeen

18 08 2014

Since images of Christ have been the subject of two recent posts (here and here), I feel it appropriate to share here some pictures I took in Aberdeen, since I did a lot more than buy the poems of St John of the Cross whilst there!

Our first evening in Aberdeen, my parents and I took a pre-dinner stroll that included St Mary’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, founded in 1859 (I come by my many church visists honestly!). When you enter St Mary’s sanctuary, what confronts you is a large, modern crucifix that feels like it has Romanesque influences on it:

aberdeen st mary's crucifix



In one of the windows, you then see scenes from the Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension of Christ, reminding us of the narrative element both of Scripture and of great Christian art.


To the left of the chancel above an altar is this painting of Jesus, complete with the Sacred Heart, yet not as tamed as those I’ve critiqued — indeed, he looks a little Middle Eastern here:


The Stations of the Cross in this cathedral are all mosaic and modern, yet discernably themselves — nothing weird or strange. They are striking and draw the viewer in powerfully. Here is a close-up of Christ on the cross:


Striking modern images that use old motifs with contemporary stylings recurred in Aberdeen. The next day, we walked past my Grandpa’s birthplace then up to King’s College Chapel, which has a great crown spire like St Giles’, Edinburgh.


Inside, there are some traditional Victorian stained glass windows (the oldest stained glass in Scotland is all late Victorian). None of the Victorian windows I photographed has Christ in it, though. I am curious to know what the oldest Presbyterian image of Christ in Scotland is!

I did, however, photograph the windows by Douglas Strachan, the  famous Scottish stained glass artist of the early 20th century whose windows can be found in the Scottish National War Memorial and St Margaret’s Chapel at Edinburgh Castle, St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh, Glasgow Cathedral, and Dunfermline Abbey (to list only those I’ve seen). In his window in the centre of the East wall there is a crucifixion scene:IMG_3356


Strachan’s Christ here feels very 1920s, if you ask me (non-art historian that I am!). He stands enthroned as King on the cross, rather than hanging in death. The image of Christ hanging in death is a more Gothic vision, whereas as earlier Romanesque had favoured images where Christ was still somehow in power. The theology of that is that Christ chose the Cross as His throne, as the place where His power was most evident — the place of lowest human weakness.

Up the road from King’s College is St Machar’s Cathedral, now a parish church of the Church of Scotland (so not really a cathedral anymore). Although there are Douglas Strachan windows here as well, none of what I photographed had Christ in it!


Within, the first Christ I saw was in the central panel of the tri-partite East window:




This window, reminiscent stylistically of Douglas Strachan, is the newest in St Machar’s, by William Wilson in 1953. In contrast to the Strachan window above, Wilson has depicted Christ hanging on the Cross, showing us the moment of death, the sorrow of what the Saviour endured for us.

On the South (right-hand) wall is found a window from 1877 by Clayton and Bell in honour of a minister of St Machar’s, Robert Smith, and his wife. It is a ‘traditional’ Victorian window, depicting a blond Christ in glory bound to raise a few hackles today:



The final Christ I photographed was from a window by the mid-twentieth-century stained glass artist Margaret Chilton. On the left we see the brazen serpent in the wilderness, on the right the crucifixion of Christ, recalling the Johannine typology.

IMG_3397These are the images of Christ I saw in Aberdeen. Each of them speaks a different aspect of the multifaceted Truth of his life, death, resurrection, and reign in glory. I trust that they may inspire you in a deep and abiding way to worship the Lord in the spirit of holiness.

Poems of St John of the Cross and making time for silence

17 08 2014

I got back from a week up in northern Scotland with my parents this past Friday, and our first stop was the Granite City of Aberdeen where, after seeing my Grandpa’s birthplace and two fantastic Gothic churches, we slipped into a bookshop (as we are wont to do). To my delight and surprise, I found Poems of St John of the Cross, translated by Roy Campbell.

poems of st john of the cross

As I have mentioned here before (twice, in fact), I lost this book, a gift from my friend Emily, along with The Way of a Pilgrim, trans. Helen Bacovcin, back in 2004 on the OC Transpo when the books fell out of my pocket. My brother gave me Bacovcin’s Pilgrim for this past birthday, and now I have also recovered St John of the Cross — in even the same edition! Quite chuffed with this purchase (a mere £2), I started reading that night at our hotel.

Zurbarán_St._John_of_the_CrossHere you will find that St John of the Cross employs ‘the analogical’ method of talking about God and our relationship to Him — that is, St John is unashamed to follow in the footsteps of St Bernard of Clairvaux (saint of the week here) in discussing Christ as the bridegroom of the human soul as bride. It is an analogy for a kind of communion and relationship to which nothing in the human sphere really compares. This private poetry is one of my cited locations where it’s okay for Jesus to be your boyfriend.

The first poem is the famous ‘Dark Night of the Soul‘, upon which St John wrote a commentary that is one of the great classics of the Christian tradition (read it online or find it in print!). Many of the poems deal with searching for the Lover or with one of the classic tropes of lyric-elegiac poetry — the pain of love.

One title stands out to me, Englished as, ‘Verses Written After an Ecstasy of High Exaltation’.* How many of us could say, ‘I have had an ecstasy of high exaltation?’ We may have the eros, the desire, for God, but we rarely reshape our lives. My ‘ascetic revival’ of a few years ago lasted about a week. Old patterns slip back in.

Who has time to sit alone and pray to God, to clear the mind, to do nothing in God’s presence?

We, of course, need to make the time. Cultivate stillness and silence. Probably very few of us will have ecstasies of high exaltation — ecstasy, as James Houston notes in The Transforming Power of Prayer, is a gift from God not doled out lightly. We cannot attain it by any technique or through any skill. But we can all attain the same stillness that inspired St John of the Cross to write his beautiful poems, driven by the desire to meet with the Most Holy Trinity. And that is worth doing.

So, when we’re moving along with church attendance, prayer, and scripture reading — as recommended here — shall we then add stillness in God’s presence as a way to focus our lives and hearts of Jesus?

*’Coplas del mismo hechas sobre un éxtasis de alta contemplación’ in the original spanish.

Making Jesus weird

2 08 2014

Coptic Icon of Christ

So, besides the fact that I simply like ancient and mediaeval Christianity (theologically, devotionally, artistically, liturgically, musically), one of the themes running through this blog is the use of our ancient and mediaeval inheritance to untame God and draw nearer to Him. Certainly my own time with the Church Fathers has helped untame my vision of God. The Fathers and monks and mystics of 2000 years of Church history have saved me from a small faith and weak theology.

In response to my post about mediaeval and Renaissance representations of Jesus as white, a friend said that most people aren’t necessarily concerned with those older representations but, rather, with the flannelgraph Jesus we all grew up with where He is so clearly just one of us white dudes in a robe. Not unlike my father.*

This comment made me think about contemporary representations of Jesus, especially in white congregations. While I think blond, Germanic Jesuses of the Early Middle Ages, or Chinese Jesuses in the 19th century, or mediaeval Jesuses who like vaguely like Buddha (also in China), or First Nations Jesuses today, maybe the time for such encultured Jesuses in white churches is over.

I’m not concerned with ‘imperialism’ or ‘racism’ here. I’m more concerned with tameness. With ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild.’

Do our ongoing white Jesuses  serve to tame the untamable? Have we made Jesus too normal? Have we lost the shock and scandal and bewilderment of the historical particularity of the Incarnation? Yes, God became one of us. And that meant a first-century Palestinian working-class Jewish guy.

That is to say, perhaps the time for this 19th-c image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, whence comes flannelgraph Jesus, I believe, has gone:

Accurate? Probably. Creepy? Definitely.

But I don’t think the BBC’s 2001 image of Jesus should ever have its day. Not because it’s untraditional but because it’s creepy. A friend of mine says that there is a stage at which computer images move from acceptable to creepy as they become more real. Like the trailers for the new Tarzan film (which I eschew on principle). I’ve seen these facial reconstructions done by osteoarchaeologists and forensic scientists before, for Pompeiians and Bog People and they are always creepy.

When I say I want Jesus to be ‘weird’, I mean I want him to be less familiar, not more creepy.

Perhaps then we can begin to be shocked anew at the sayings of the Crucified God. Perhaps we can realise that He spends a lot of time challenging our lifestyles, and that’s really uncomfortable. Perhaps.

Perhaps we can untame our theology and be seized again by the power of the Triune God who is completely beyond our understanding.

*Who has been referred to as ‘God’ by children on multiple occasions. The beard and the robes …


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