Those medieval mystics!

My own copy of The Cloud of Unknowing

Last Monday, I had the joy and delight of giving a lecture about medieval mysticism, focussing on some foundations (so, Evagrius and Cassian, basically) and then really on the fourteenth-century English mystics — Walter Hilton, Richard Rolle, Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, The Cloud of Unknowing, The Abbey of the Holy Ghost. All of my students were required to read a large chunk of Julian of Norwich, and for-credit students will also have read one of the others for an essay assignment.

One student read The Cloud of Unknowing, Rolle’s Fire of Love, and then The Cloud of Unknowing again while working on the essay, and then Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love for class. She declared that she wanted to become a medieval mystic. Another student admitted to being bitter a lot of the time, but that reading The Cloud and Julian filled him with sweetness.

I, too, am fond of reading medieval mystics. Of those covered for this class, I like best Julian of Norwich and The Cloud of Unknowing. I also have a fondness (almost typed fandom!) for early Cistercians, especially St Bernard of Clairvaux and William of St-Thierry. I have to admit, though, that my exposure to St Hildegard is too shallow, and the promising beginning I made in reading St Catherine of Siena was cut short by other affairs.

As you may guess, the contemplative/mystic types I spend more time with are late antique and Byzantine besides modern Orthodox pray-ers — St Theophan the Recluse, St Porphyrios, St Sophrony, Met. Anthony Bloom, and others.

I must confess, however, that I am very poor mystic/contemplative. Reading about high ideals stirs my heart, makes me want to climb those mountains and put in that hard labour. But acedia sets in. Sloth is easier than asceticism, right?

I recently went through a stretch where I had not been reading any Orthodox elders or late antique monks. One night, I decided to push through a portion of St Silouan the Athonite by St Sophrony (a very dense but powerful book). And I felt my spirits lightened and my resolve quickened by this experience. Reading holy literature is not wasted.

I remind myself of a story from the Egyptian desert about a monk complaining to an old man that he listens to the elders and hears the Scriptures but can’t for the life of him remember the teachings. The old man told him to take two clay pots that were dusty and dirty. Leave one alone, and pour oil into the other. Then pour the oil out. Then repeat several times. “Which is cleaner?” the old man asked. “The one I poured the oil into,” was the response.

Let’s bring this back to the mystics, then. I have expressed my misgivings about us unspiritual meatheads reading The Cloud of Unknowing on this blog. Yet perhaps the story from the desert is telling us that if we have the will or desire for these good things, then even advanced books like that are not lost on us.

So go on reading your medieval mystics, gentle reader. May you be made more pure of heart as a result.

Athanasius and the Fatherhood of God

Yesterday was Father’s Day, so I made sure to have a video chat with my Dad and to watch Cars 2 during a thunderstorm with my kids. And crack open a cold one in the evening while preparing tonight’s lecture about Wycliffe and suchlike. I also thought a bit about God as Father.

Most of us think of God as Father in three ways:

  1. Creator of everything. Thus, Father of all humans by analogy.
  2. Adopter of redeemed humans. Thus, Father of some humans by divine will.
  3. Father of the God Word, God the Son, Jesus the Christ. Thus, Father by his own nature.

Actually, most people today, no matter how orthodox their idea of the Trinity, probably rarely think of number 3. St Athanasius (sign up for my Athanasius course today!) did, and when I encountered his ideas early on in my journey into the Fathers, they cemented for me two facts:

  1. The Trinity must be true.
  2. It good and healthy to speak of God as Father, despite the failings of human fathers.

It’s point number 1 that came home to me time and again. Basically, if we take seriously the Bible as being revelatory of God’s nature, then biblical names mean something. The names the Bible uses of God reveal to us something of His nature. Thus, if a biblical name for God is “Father”, we need to take that seriously. The name “Father”, rather than something we came up with like, say “unbegotten”, is revelatory of the divine nature. It means that God has always existed as Father, according to St Athanasius. And therefore, there has always been a Son from eternity.

St Athanasius nuances this with the analogy from human fathers, an analogy that some felt divided Father and Son so that the Son could not be fully God. According to St Athanasius, sons have all the same essential and natural attributes as their fathers. I am a human by nature; so are my sons. Whatever is necessary to my humanity is necessary to theirs — this is in virtue of my having begotten them.

Likewise in the Godhead. Anything that can be predicated of the Father — eternal, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, immortal — can be predicated of the Son. Grasp this with the biblical teaching of God being only one, with the doctrine of divine simplicity, and you are headed straight for the Trinity.

Point number 2 is partly related to this. We need to be able to speak of God as Father because that’s how the Bible does. And biblical names matter. By speaking of God as Father, Athanasius was able to see how Father and Son are homoousios.

Furthermore, in the life-and-worldview of the ancient Christians, influenced by both Scripture and Plato, the reality of human fathers failing did not bear on God the Father at all. God, as Father in all three ways listed above, is the perfect Father, of whom every human father is an imperfect image. Think of the absolute best Dad, and then multiply him by infinity — then you have a poor analogy for the perfect divine Father, God the Creator, and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

And once we embrace these biblical names and the transcendent realities they point us toward, there is no fear of uttering the Scriptural names of the Three Persons of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Sign up for my Athanasius course today!

Demons: From sword and sorcery to civilizational collapse

My latest YouTube video is a discussion of demons, sparked by some thoughts I was having about sword and sorcery, and then coupling them to my upcoming course on St Athanasius, thus tying in On the Incarnation and The Life of Antony. Enjoy!

A Form of Medieval Catholicism that Never Existed

A while back, @MilitantThomist announced on the Twitter that he and his wife were going to start attending their local SSPX church (if you don’t know what they are, here’s their site). One of his detractors went on to accuse him of following a form of medieval Catholicism that never existed.

I like that phrasing. As some of you know, a friend of mine once dreamt that I was the priest at a church plant that followed the medieval Roman rite according to the Use of Sarum (you can read about that dream here), which is the liturgy of medieval England. Of course, the Middle Ages are kind of one of my things. So, really, if you were to ask, “What’s your preferred religion?”, the answer would be:

“A form of medieval Catholicism that never existed.”

Why? Well, because there are lots of things I like about the medieval church that we lost with modernity, whether Protestant or Catholic. My post about the Sarum dream mentioned some of these, and how their loss in our wider practice of the faith means that no amount of liturgical reconstruction or study of personal application of medieval spirituality will ever bring us back to the High Middle Ages.

I was going to list the specific things about the Latin Middle Ages and her spiritual world, about my love of Cistercians, of high liturgy, of vernacular preaching rooted in the Fathers, of so on and so forth. And about bringing all of it together into a living, breathing, heaving community of the faithful who love Christ and want to just reach out and touch him and swallow him and live his life.

To whatever extent my description would match any real, single moment of medieval life in Latin Christendom, it would hide the dark underbelly of medieval Catholicism, of criminous clerks, of promoting unfit clerks to high office, of uncatechised lay people, of abuses, of some doctrines being dangerously underdetermined (I am, in the end, still actually a Prot). And that’s part of how it would not be medieval Catholicism as it existed. It would be my favourite bits.

But what do we want when we dig into St Bernard or St Anselm or the Stowe Missal or St Bede or saints’ lives? What are we seeking when we prop up a postcard of a rose window on our bookcase? What is it that drew me into Durham Cathedral day after day after day? What do I think I might meet in Richard Rolle or Julian of Norwich that I won’t meet at St Paul’s Anglican Church on Sunday?

Why do some of us like to get medieval? What drives us to these false medieval catholicisms? The thoughts that follow are not restricted to the Middle Ages, which is part of the point:

I think we are drawn to a bigger, stronger sense of the transcendent.

We are drawn to the idea of a united Latin Christendom, undone in the 1520s and sundered forever.

Some are drawn to the crystalline precision of Scholasticism.

Some are drawn to the vast mystery of Cistercians and Carthusians.

We are drawn to the beauty and drama of now-dead liturgical practices.

We long for a united, believing community not just internationally but locally.

We long for that “inner experience” that the mystics had.

We wish for clear boundaries of “in” and “out” that medieval canon law gave the church.

I tell you the truth: We can meet them today, and the medievals can be our guide. (Even for Prots. Shhh!)

But there is no return to a form of medieval Catholicism that never existed.

Indeed, there there is no return to a form that did exist.

This is basically my life’s goal.

What separates me from an Athonite monk

Athonites at prayer

One of the remarkable things about the tradition of ancient monasticism, from the Egyptian Desert to Jeremy Taylor to Mt Athos, is its concern about oversleeping. I recall reading about a monastery amongst the Desert Fathers where the monks were purposefully prevented from getting what we call “a good night’s sleep.” It was believed that the ascetic with less sleep was more able to fight demons.

When I mentioned this fact to my father, he remarked that he found himself less equipped to fight evil with less sleep. I feel the same way — more irascible, more likely to skip prayers, more likely to eat that which I should not. More likely to snap at my kids. That sort of thing.

And yet the life of St Silouan the Athonite, as recounted by St Sophrony, tells us of the opposite. St Silouan (St Sophrony’s spiritual father on the Holy Mountain of Mt Athos) would spend hours in the night sitting up praying. Sometimes he would get as little as two hours of sleep. Sometimes he would have vigils.

Yet St Silouan, despite his lack of sleep, was regarded as an even-tempered, loving man, more upset at his own sins than those of others.

And here’s what separates me from an Athonite monk:

Prayer.

What am I doing if I’m up late? Well, sometimes I’m working. Or doing chores/errands for the household. Sometimes I’m reading for pleasure. Or watching shows. Or just mindlessly surfing the worldwide web.

Now, I think for most of us a good night’s sleep does a lot of good.

But so would a good night’s prayer.

I’ve been in hospital the past few days for hernia surgery. The down time has enabled me to reset morning and evening prayer. Let’s pray the Lord gives me the blessing of duration in devotion.

St Athanasius round-up

Life is very busy (so I’ve not blogged as much I’d like), but you should know that I have an upcoming course with Davenant Hall this summer called “Athanasius Against the World”. I hope you will be able to join me for it! In the meantime, here are some of my previous Athanasius things, culminating at the bottom with my recent St Athanasius video on YouTube:

Reflections on John 12 (from 2021)

A little Trinitarian incarnational theology for you (from 2021 — video of my Davenant Fellows Lecture from December 2020)

Irenaeus and Athanasius (from 2013)

Saint of the Week: St. Athanasius (from 2010)

Wish I had more time for St. Athanasius (from 2009)

Some thoughts about St Anselm

Image of an Archbishop from Anselm’s Prayers and Meditations found in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Auct. D. 2. 6 (12th c)

I had the opportunity to teach about St Anselm last night. Much of the lecture was taken up with investiture, and I’m still sorting that out in my mind — hopefully, thoughts to follow. I also had the opportunity to linger on his Prayers and Meditations. I believe that these are very important for us to understand the whole man of this Archbishop of Canterbury. St Anselm is more than the clear, systematised logic of his philosophical and theological treatises. He is also a man of great “religious feeling” (if you will), a man animated by his love of Christ, Christ’s church, as well as awareness of his own smallness and sinfulness.

This positioning of Anselm through the Prayers and Meditations helps us see that true Christian theology is always done in Evagrian mode: “If you truly pray, you are a theologian; if you are a theologian, you will truly pray.” The logical treatises, such as De Casu Diaboli are not detached from the saint’s life and worship. This is also a perspective potentially gained from the Life of St Anselm by Eadmer as well, which is why I chose to assign a portion of that text to my students.

A second approach to St Anselm requires us to grasp foundational truths that St Anselm affirmed. I say this because Anselm is famous today for two things:

  1. The ontological argument for the existence of God (in the Proslogion)
  2. Penal substitutionary atonement (in Cur Deus Homo — check out The Major Works)

The second of these is often misunderstood, most famously and egregiously as “divine child abuse.” To understand why Anselm’s atonement theory of satisfaction is not “divine child abuse”, it is worth knowing both what Anselm believes about God, and second, what penal substitutionary atonement theory actually teaches.

Anselm is a traditional, western Trinitarian. He believes that God is/has one essence/substance in three persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The three are co-equal and co-eternal. And one of these three, who is Himself fully God, chose to become human and die. Once you catch a glimpse of the historic doctrine of the Trinity, the idea that penal substitutionary atonement theory is “divine child abuse” is untenable, because it is not a father forcing or sending a son to die for other people because the father is angry. It is God choosing to take his own anger upon Himself in order to save other people.

I’m not saying this is an argument for why you ought to agree with St Anselm — it’s simply an argument that should make you set aside this caricature.

The theory itself is this: In Cur Deus Homo, St Anselm argues that offence against God requires balance, it requires an equitable return, something proportional to the offence. This is a basic principle of law and justice. Since God is infinite, offence against God carries with it infinite weight. No human being can redress the balance of sin against God. In the courtroom of heavenly justice, we will always be found guilty of infinite offence and thus sentenced to infinite punishment, eternal damnation. Therefore, God, in his mercy, chooses to condescend Himself to our weakness, take our flesh upon Himself, and take our place as a substitution by dying on the cross. This substitution of an infinite, perfect, good God in place of finite sinners, redresses the balance and pays the penalty for our sin in our place. By removing the penalty of sin from us, God makes it possible for us to be oned (to use the later language of Julian of Norwich), united, to him and participate in the divine life.

Penal substitutionary atonement theory has fallen out of fashion today. It was first articulated by St Anselm, and it came to dominate western theological discourse about the atonement until Aulen’s book Christus Victor in the 20th century. A quick example of this theory’s dominance is that it is the model of the atonement used by Edmund Spenser in A Hymn of Heavenly Love.

A final point on Cur Deus Homo. I read it and found it convincing. This does not mean that I do not also believe in the classic or Christus Victor model found in fathers like Athanasius and Leo. The two theories are not mutually exclusive but, rather, complement one another. Perhaps western theology lost sight of one for a while and thereby suffered — but this does not mean that rejecting Anselmian atonement theology redresses the balance.

In closing, St Anselm was a deep, profound thinker, steeped in prayer, in scripture, and in the tools of logic and dialectic from the classroom at Bec. He made two original and lasting contributions to theology as well as some important gains in the king-bishop relationship (but that’s perhaps for another post). Read his devotional works, read his theology, read his life.

The grace of God can make you a better Christian thereby.

The nourishment of historic liturgy

Liturgy doesn’t get more historic than this baby

We have been worshipping with the Anglican Church of Canada (the denomination in which I grew up) for a while now (recall my post about beauty). As this blog should make abundantly clear, I am very much a pro-BCP kind of guy. The BCP stands in perfect continuity with the medieval Roman Rite according to the Use of Sarum and thus with ancient liturgy, part of a large international family that includes Mozarabic (medieval Spanish) liturgy and the Ambrosian Rite of Milan and various local liturgies of the early Middle Ages in the West, and the many beautiful liturgies of the East — St John Chrysostom, St Basil, St Mark, Sts Addai and Mari, St James, and those that largely exist as relics such as that of Hippolytus. More succinctly, the BCP is not only part of this big family but also beautiful, elegant, and theologically rich, expressing the great tradition in a properly Reformational mode for public worship.

As I say, we’re going to a local Anglican Church of Canada parish. As Bishop Michael Hawkins of Saskatchewan put it, there has been an illegal suppression of the Prayer Book in the Anglican Church of Canada. And even where the suppression has not been illegal (that is, contrary to the canon law of the church), it has certainly gone on. Most parishes, liberal or conservative, low church or mid- or even high church, with organ and choir or guitar or slightly out of tune piano, use The Book of Alternative Services (BAS) that was approved by the General Synod in 1983. Thus, at both parishes we’ve frequented in 2022, the worship was ordered according to the BAS using the prayers from the BAS.

You’d think, then, that I would be raging, wouldn’t you? Isn’t this the caricature of BCP-lovers? Or maybe disdainful. Ugh. BAS. *Shudder.*

And, while I think the BCP is theologically, poetically, and historically superior, after my years of journeying through those with little liturgy and those with do-it-yourself liturgy, I have come to appreciate the BAS. The Book of Alternative Services is one of those post-Vatican II liturgical movement creations. Many such creations are terrible; let’s not pretend otherwise. I’ve met some of them.

But the actual roots and origins of that liturgical movement were not the tossing out of tradition or a desire for novelty or even a desire to be relevant that now plagues evangelicalism. In fact — setting aside the question of whether post-Vatican II liturgy was successful — the goal was to be faithful to the primitive liturgy and the spirit and theology that undergirds it.

Mostly, anyway.

Changing, “And with thy spirit,” into, “And also with you,” is not in the spirit of the early liturgy.

Anyway, these prayers, even if crafted by modernists, were often put together with the intention of providing a modern language resource that has the same theological import as the ancient and medieval prayers. I have not yet found anything directly objectionable in the prayers of the BAS as they stand — I think some of the rubrics mean trouble, because they seem to make confession of sin optional, and the Eucharistic prayer that claims to represent the 1962 BCP makes some major changes.

In other words, it’s good to be home. I am an Anglican. My preferred religion may, of course, be some kind of medieval Catholicism that does not exist. But I grew up in the Anglican Church of Canada using these prayers and following this liturgical flow. There is comfort here, and there is even nourishment, giving food to the soul, even if the plate is a modern affair (imagine the BCP as fine porcelain, I guess?).

I’ll leave us there without getting into my dissatisfactions with “do-it-yourself liturgy”. If you’re in Canada and can’t find a Prayer Book church, the Lord will bless you and meet with you through the BAS. I promise. He’s big enough to do that.

Evagrius in Anglo-Saxon England

In rereading St Bede the Venerable, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Book 1, in preparation for this past Monday, I encountered (unsurprisingly) Evagrian resonances in Pope St Gregory the Great’s letters to St Augustine of Canterbury in 1.27. Evagrius of Pontus was a late fourth-century mystic and ascetic master amongst the Desert Fathers of Lower Egypt at Nitria and then Kellia. Father Luke Dysinger has an accessible biography of Evagrius here. Despite being controversial in posthumous Origenist controversies, Evagrius remains foundational for ascetic and mystical theology and practice both East and West. In the West, his teachings were transmitted and refracted through the work of St John Cassian, and then further refracted through the works of Pope St Gregory.

The Evagrian resonances were most explicit for me in St Gregory’s response to question 9.

First, Gregory recapitulates teaching common to both Evagrius and St Cassian that fornication and gluttony are intimately linked. The immediate context is the ongoing, perplexing question raised by ancient monastics as to whether someone who has nocturnal emissions has sinned or not.

Pope Gregory writes that the illusions that accompany such emissions are sometimes caused by overeating, that one’s body is essentially overburdened by eating. The correlation between gluttony and fornication is made by Evagrius in the “Texts on Discrimination” excerpted in The Philokalia Vol. 1:

For one does not fall into the power of the demon of unchastity, unless one has first fallen because of gluttony…

Trans. Sherrard et al., p. 38

One of the basic realities I discovered when I did my first dive into John Cassian was the interconnectedness of our whole lives, including the life of sin. Succumb to one sin, and you are setting yourself up for being bound to the others. Excel at one virtue, and you gain strength to fight all the sins. I confess here and now that I have yet to read Gregory the Great on the Seven Deadly Sins (which he adapts from Evagrius-Cassian), but I imagine his concept is much the same.

But what really got my Evagrian gears turning was this passage in Bede, EH 1.27, Q IX:

all sin is committed in three ways, namely by suggestion, pleasure, and consent. The devil makes the suggestion, the flesh delights in it and the spirit consents. It was the serpent who suggested the first sin, Eve representing the flesh was delighted by it, and Adam representing the spirit consented to it: and when the mind sits in judgement on itself it is necessary to make careful distinction between suggestion and delight, between delight and consent. For when an evil spirit suggests a sin to the mind, if no delight in the sin follows then the sin is not committed in any form; but when the flesh begins to delight in it then sin begins to arise. But if the mind deliberately consents, then the sin is seen to be complete.

Ed. McClure and Collins, pp. 53-54

Gregory the Great goes on. But this is enough to see the Evagrian anatomy of sin. The suggestion comes first — that is, the initial temptation as we would see it. We like the idea — sure, why not have another goblet of wine? We succumb; our spirit consents. (Another goblet … or three?)

It is a sublte, psychologically real approach to sin that attaches all the responsibility for action upon the human agent. Gregory notes that one may have the suggestion, and be delighted by it, but resist so as not to consent with the spirit. This circumstance, of being delighted by sin yet able to resist, is what St Paul spoke of in Romans 7:23,”But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.” So we are able to fight these thoughts when they come.

This fight is what much of the surviving work of Evagrius is about, and it is also the chief business of many writers in the Philokalia. One of the chief skills Philokalic and Evagrian spirituality seeks to hone is watchfulness. We must watch our thoughts, “to recognize the difference between angelic thoughts, human thoughts, and thoughts that come from demons.” (Evagrius, On Discrimination 7, p. 42)

Watchfulness and the discernment of the thoughts and the battle against temptation are central to Evagrian praktike, but central to his whole program, central to St Gregory, to the Venerable Bede, to the missionaries of Anglo-Saxon England, is the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity, to be met in contemplation, theoria, and worshipped and adored.

Nothing else really matters.

“Death, Be Not Proud” by John Donne

Tonight as I cleaned up after the Easter feast, listening to Choral Evensong from Canterbury Cathedral, my mind kept leaving Canterbury to John Donne, “Death, Be Not Proud” for various reasons (none having to do with any deaths in my vicinity, however). It’s an appropriate poem for Easter — “Death, thou shalt die.”

Imagine Jeremy Irons reading it in your head. I do.

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

“The Harrowing of Hell” by I Forget Whom