Thin Places, Saints, and Eucharist

On Sunday, my Northern Irish colleague who preached the homily brought in the concept of thin places (or thin spaces — I’ll stick with places) to his exposition of Revelation 7. I wasn’t there, what with my whole family ill with colds (although somehow it feels wrong to simply be ill these days), so I don’t know what he said. Nonetheless, given that it was All Saints’ Day on Sunday, when he mentioned that this was going to bring thin places into play, the thought crept into my mind that the saints are, in essence, thin places with legs. Moveable thin places.

But the Eucharist is the thinnest place of all.

Except I don’t believe in thin places, so let’s go through these ideas systematically — What is a thin place? Why don’t I believe in them? What is a saint? What goes on in the Eucharist?

What is a thin place?

A thin place is a place where people have intense encounters with God (or the numinous or whatever) that are stronger, more palpable, more clear than how they experience and encounter God elsewhere. In a lot of popular discussion of thin places, thin places themselves are objectively thin, that the numinous is more easily encountered there than elsewhere by anyone.

If the concept fits with historic orthodoxy, the thin places of Scripture would be Bethel, Mount Sinai, the Tabernacle, the Temple, and the thin places of Christian history would be places like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Mount Athos, St Antony’s Cave, St Peter’s in Rome, Canterbury, Santiago de Compostela, Lourdes, and other famous pilgrimage sites.

However, most people use the term in a looser, more subjective sense — thin places are where I feel God’s presence more tangibly. The chapel at Wycliffe College in Toronto, the Rocky Mountains, Bede’s tomb at Durham Cathedral. I take no issue with this concept as to whether or not it is true.

Why don’t I believe in them?

Nonetheless, after reading this thorough investigation of the topic by Mark D. Roberts, I came to the conclusion that there was no scriptural support for the idea that specific places in and of themselves are closer to God. Rather, God, Who is an entirely free Agent, has chosen to interact with human history at specific times and places.

Furthermore, I have been having trouble finding a source for the concept in the literature of Early Middle Ages, despite it being dubbed “Celtic” — but I am, as noted elsewhere, a Celto-skeptic, anyway. If someone could direct me to primary source literature on the topic, I would be grateful.

Third, if there were “thin places” in the Old Testament, Jesus destroyed them all. I am fairly certain that this is biblical theology — that, although God is a free agent, people before Jesus had to go to the Temple and that is where the Presence of the LORD truly resided. But in Jesus, who is God-in-Flesh, the veil was torn in two, and the Temple became unnecessary. Jesus, being the God-man, is a walking Temple. Wherever Jesus is, there is fulness of the Presence of the LORD. Roberts makes this point, and I keep coming back to it whenever people bring up thin places.

And where do we find the Body of Christ today? Two places: The mystical company of all his faithful disciples and in the Lord’s Supper.

What is a saint?

Saints, literally, are holy persons. They are those people who we know are already with Jesus beyond the shadow of a doubt. They lived and/or died here on earth in such a way that it was evident to everyone that the saints were especially close to Jesus.

The original saints commemorated and celebrated by the Church were those witnesses to Christ who died for the faith — martyr being a word for witness. Later, other Christians who had led noteworthy lives of holiness were also celebrated, adding the missionaries, monks, and mystics alongside the martyrs.

As a result of their closeness to our Lord and Saviour, God has performed miracles through saints, whether directly, as when St Peter says to the paralytic at the Temple, “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!”, or indirectly, such as cloths blessed by the Apostles being used to heal the sick in Acts.

I am not, however, entirely sold on relics. Yet. But it makes sense to me that if there are places that are intrinsically closer to God, then they won’t be the Rocky Mountains but those Christian persons who dwell there.

It is the Christian, the holy person, the saint who is a thin place. No piece of creation is closer to God than any other.

Eucharist

There is only one other candidate for thin place that I am comfortable with, and that is the Sacrament of the Most Blessed Body and Blood of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ — the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Communion.

In the words of St Ignatius of Antioch, the medicine of immortality.

The Eucharist, instituted by the Christ:

who, in the same night that he was betrayed, took Bread; and, when he had given thanks, he brake it; and gave it to his disciples, saying, Take, eat; this is my Body which is given for you: Do this in remembrance of me. Likewise after supper he took the Cup; and, when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all, of this; for this is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the remission of sins: Do this, as oft as ye shall drink it, in remembrance of me.

Book of Common Prayer, quoting 1 Corinthians

Is means is. Now, I am currently leaning towards Richard Hooker’s theology of the Eucharist, as explained in this post. However we parse the Real Presence, it has always struck me as sound, biblical theology. Where do we meet the risen, ascended Lord of the cosmos?

His body, broken by our teeth.

His blood, spilled into our mouths.

Whether we “feel” it or not.

Me versus subjectivity

In the end, I think I dislike the concept of thin places because of the subjectivity of it all. Christ, being the heart of creation as well as its creator, embraces the whole world, as in the Ebstorf map. If we start to think that he is actually more available to us on Holy Island or at Melrose Abbey or sitting on a Munro in the Scottish Highlands, then we’re missing Him singing off-key at church beside us, and maybe not realising what a dread and beautiful thing we do every Sunday morning with the bread and wine that are more than bread and wine.

Christ is objectively present in His body, the church, whether we like the Church or not.

Christ is really present in the Eucharist whether we feel it or not.

Thin places focus on how I feel closer to God and where I feel that I have encountered Him. And I’m not saying that God Himself has not made Himself palpable to people at various “thin places.” I can, myself, think of places where I have been more able to focus my thoughts and pray thereby becoming more aware of His Presence — some of the less famous churches of Rome where you can slip in and pray quietly and meet with God without hustling and bustling tourists and pilgrims.

I’m just saying that He is equally available in places where you may not be ready for Him — your fellow believer and the Eucharist, even at churches with poor singing, bad music, and wretched preaching.

The saints went to tombs and pagan temples to wrestle with demons and meet with God. They sought ugly, barren, barely sustainable places to meet with God. And they met Him. St Seraphim knelt on a rock, for Pete’s sake! (Actually, one could non-blasphemously say, “For Christ’s sake!”)

This is what the tradition hammers home to me all the time: God comes in power and can do so anywhere. Most of the time, it is not the physical place that matters but the spiritual.

Rant about textual criticism

I had to bow out of a conversation several times the other night because I knew it would do no good. An elderly relation was proclaiming the superiority of the KJV not on the grounds I would give — sonorous beauty, a sense of the English language, and a reliable rendering of the text used — but on the grounds that the KJV, unlike all the modern translations, was based “on the ancient manuscripts themselves”, whereas modern translations are based on Westcott and Hort “who weren’t even believers.”

Honestly — this person has been told that the Rt Rev. Brooke Foss Westcott, Bishop of Durham, and the Rev. Fenton John Anthony Hort (a Church of England priest) weren’t believers. Astonishing. And, even if they weren’t, I do not see how the technical skill of textual criticism and editing is influenced by one’s faith. But, then, I’m a textual critic.

In fact, Westcott and Hort acknowledge the fact that no critical doctrine of the Christian faith is affected by the emendations they made to the work of earlier scholars such as Erasmus and Tischendorff.

I am more astonished by this sort of argument because it argues for the superiority of Erasmus’ and Stephanus’ texts as well as Codex Bezae — not to mention the fact that somehow a few early printed editions and a manuscript are worth more than all the mss of Westcott and Hort combined.

I must say, first of all, that as philologists, few of us today will be as naturally attuned to the ancient Latin and Greek languages as people like Erasmus and Stephanus. This simple fact is both blessing and curse to early modern editors, however. The more interventionist among them were willing to change the Latin and Greek so that it was “correct” by textbook standards. To my knowledge, neither Erasmus more Stephanus did that sort of thing.

Second, however good Erasmus and Stephanus may have been as text editors, the greatest problem facing their text was a lack of earlier, reliable manuscripts, which Westcott and Hort had — including two fourth-century pandects known as Sinaiticus and Vaticanus. They used what they had available — fairly recent, late Byzantine manuscripts.

Third, the idea that we should trust Erasmus and Stephanus with the so-called Textus Receptus always comes from unlikely corners — anti-traditionalists. If we are to accept that late mss of the Textus Receptus are superior to the papyri of Egypt and the mss Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, we must therefore accept that the tradition of the Byzantine Church was so good at textual transmission that the true line of descent from the Apostles was maintained by it — and accept this in the face of older texts that differ from the Byzantine world.

Aside: Even accepting the “better not older” dogma of textual criticism, we need at least to know about the older before we can judge whether they are better.

Fourth, Westcott and Hort produced a critical edition of the New Testament of the variety that any Classicist would recognise. This means that if any preacher or translator disagrees with their readings, they can check and see what the Textus Receptus has to say on the matter. The careful user of a critical edition does not simply read the redacted text in large type up top, but the notes at the bottom as well.

Fifth, even if Lancelot Andrewes and his team had had an edition such as Westcott and Hort at hand, the English language has had some shifts in 419 years. As a result, for those unused to Jacobean English, it can be misread and misinterpreted.

Sixth, Lancelot Andrewes would probably have been happy to use Westcott and Hort.

Seventh, to return to the point about tradition, I find myself continually astonished that low church, non-conformists who reject Anglicanism and tradition not only prefer a traditionalist Greek text, but an English translation produced by Anglican priests.

Eighth, there are unbelievers who know this stuff. And they know it well. Propagating this nonsense is damaging to Christian witness in two ways. First, it makes our religion look like the faith of simpletons and morons that has no room for people interested in the life of the mind and serious inquiry. Second, it makes us look like the bunch of cantankerous, in-fighting idiots we are.

*End rant.*

Things to like about Anglicanism

I have already blogged here about my inescapable Anglican identity. I would like to talk briefly about the things that consciously attract me in the Anglican church.

Historic liturgy

I love the Book of Common Prayer, as this blog can attest very well. Part of what I love about the BCP is the fact that it maintains more than a superficial link with tradition. It is a living part of the great tradition of liturgies that includes the Roman Mass, the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, the Divine Liturgy of St James, the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus, and more. It was born in the midst of Reform and schism, yet it keeps all that is best of the weight of the tradition, such that Protestants can safely use it, and Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox only tweak it just a little to make it their own.

Sacraments

We have sacraments! A whole two (2) of them! Even if we’re five short of Roman Catholics and a bazillion fewer than the Orthodox, these two (2) sacraments are at the heart of the communal Anglican encounter with God. Yes, we have historic liturgy to order our worship — but that could just as easily be Morning and Evening Prayer as the Lord’s Supper. But today, and growing up, most Anglicans celebrate the Eucharist on a weekly basis, which is how it was done for, like, 1500 years (until the Reformation, that is). Meeting together to meet Christ in the mystery of the bread and wine is important. This importance is difficult to articulate sometimes.

Protestant(?) theology

The official doctrine of the Anglican church is found in the 39 Articles of Religion. In their positive affirmations, they are for the most part fairly standard, western/Latin Christian orthodoxy: 1 God, Trinity, 2 natures in Jesus, 1 Bible with 2 Testaments, salvation only through Jesus, predestination, etc. It has some anti-Roman polemic, but if you remove the archaic pejorative adjectives such as “Romish”, these points are mostly ones where, frankly, if you disagree with the 39 Articles, you’d best convert to Roman Catholicism or maybe Eastern Orthodoxy. Except perhaps the bit about the saints.

Anyway, the theology of the 39 Articles is basic Protestantism, by and large: Scripture contains everything sufficient for salvation (Article 6); justification by faith (Articles 11-14); no Purgatory (Article 22); no praying to saints (Article 22); no transubstantiation (Article 28); no sacrifice in the Mass (Article 31). Fine with me.

The Fathers of the Church

That stream of the English Reformation that established what we call “Anglicanism” has always been friendly towards the Church Fathers. We may cringe a little at the idea that Archbishop Matthew Parker was helping Queen Elizabeth reset the church to how it was when St Augustine came to Canterbury in 597, but his earnestness and that of many other Anglican Reformers and divines was simply this: A lot of bad stuff has gone down, but most of it was fairly recent. Cut our losses with Rome, keep what is good from before, and rediscover the ancient Church.

Remember that the era of the Reformation was also a time when large quantities of editions of the Church Fathers were being printed. English clerics were purchasing them. The Protestant Reformation, especially Lutheran, Reformed, and Anglican, was in many ways a rediscovery and appropriation of St Augustine of Hippo (not the guy who went to Canterbury). Anyway, the Fathers and the dogmatic definitions of the ancient councils are used by Anglican theologians from Parker and Hooker to Wesley through, of course, the Oxford Movement, and up to today in the likes of Rowan Williams, Oliver O’Donovan, and Sarah Coakley.

Poets

John Donne. Sir John Davies. George Herbert. Samuel Taylor Coleridge. William Wordsworth. C. S. Lewis. W. H. Auden. T. S. Eliot. Luci Shaw. Malcolm Guite. Need I say more?

Alec Ryrie’s “Protestants” — another uneasy moment

If you have put up with this blog long enough, you will have discovered that I go through times when I am uneasy about my Protestant identity but not convinced enough by the claims of the Orthodox to join them (let alone the Romish — I mean, Roman Catholics). Last week I finished off Alec Ryrie’s book Protestants, and it makes me uneasy once again.

First, though: I recommend this book. It is a look at the great love affair with God that Protestants have had over the last 500 years. Ryrie seeks to have sympathy for most of the weird, wonderful, beautiful, and bizarre characters and ideas that fill the page. The chapters on transatlantic slavery, Nazism, and apartheid are particularly powerful and uncomfortable because they show how Protestants were instrumental in the rise and fall of all three. On the subject of Nazis, he notes how few Germans resisted the regime and its ideology, and observes that if we had lived through what they had lived through, would we fare any better?

This sort of sympathy is not there to exonerate the guilty but rather to keep us off our high horses.

My favourite bits were about Luther, the English church from Henry VIII to the Methodists, and the chapter about Pentecostalism. Indeed, the Pentecostals were my favourite part of the twentieth century.

So what makes me uneasy?

As the book wound its way through the seventeenth century, I found myself being reminded of all the things I love and loathe about Protestantism. I tend to get fired up by the story of Martin Luther, whether played by Joseph Fiennes, or told from the perspective of print technology by Andrew Pettegree in Brand Luther, or wherever you meet the man. His story and his ideas make me love Protestantism. I also enjoy the English Reformation, of course.

But Protestantism is not so cut-and-dried. We may all have some family traits in common, and we may all cling to the words “justification by faith alone” (although we may also mean different things by them), but we are not all descendants of Luther. The ecclesiastical eruption that occurred because of him took many shapes even within his lifetime.

One of the by-products of the Protestant Reformation is the subjectiveness of the Christian faith now, coupled with the rise of individualism. For people like Luther to take a stand for conscience in the face of the machinery of sixteenth-century ecclesiastical power was heroic and maybe even necessary. But when combined with sola scriptura and the polysemous nature of textual meaning in the Bible, its results have been disastrous.

Who is Martin Luther to tell Zwingli that his interpretation of the Bible passages about the Eucharist is wrong? If it goes against Zwingli’s conscience to interpret Luther’s way and to celebrate Holy Communion in anything resembling the Roman Mass, who can stand in his way? And thus it goes, unsurprisingly producing not only Baptists and Methodists but Jehovah’s Witnesses and even Mormons as well.

We are an extraordinarily divided bunch of people, Protestants. Some say that the word is utterly meaningless these days.

Moreover, Protestants have had a harder time resisting the wider culture around us than our Orthodox and Catholic siblings. Sometimes, of course, Protestants were instrumental in shaping consensus — thus, after having had their wills bent to accept slavery, they would later be among the earliest, most prominent abolitionists. Yet behold the Nazis. Or consider the Anglophone mainline today and their stance on any ethical issue.

The hope that Ryrie does not express is that, as western society drifts farther away from Protestantism and secularism becomes more hostile to its roots in liberal Protestant religion, Protestants will find following western society less and less appealing.

Not that the Orthodox have never been seduced by secular cultural power. But in the West, because they are already the “other”, originating either as immigrants from Eastern Europe or indigenous Christians in the Arctic, they seem less prone to accepting western societal trends as norms for themselves. As an example, I read something by Frederica Mathewes-Green about the gay marriage debate and how she was slow to write on the subject because she felt American society had long ago already rejected traditional marriage from an Orthodox standpoint.

Anyway, what’s remarkable about our current Protestant moment is that even as statistics show that the more you give in to the wider culture the more likely you are to die as a church, much of the Anglican Church of Canada and United Church of Canada continue to pursue the path of accommodation that has been killing them.

And so do the evangelicals, they just don’t realise it yet — but Jesus of suburbia is a lie.

Anyway, I am about to read Archimandrite Sophrony’s book Saint Silouan. (I tend to alternate between East and West in my spiritual reading.) We’ll see where I stand when I’m done, right? For now —

Here I stand. I can do no other. 😉

History of Christianity 5: 1700-Today

Today I posted the final video in the History of Christianity on YouTube, taking us from 1700-2020, from “Christendom” to Global Faith, focussing on Methodists, Russians, and Nazis.

 

Bibliography

The World As 100 Christians

Methodists
John Wesley, “The Means of Grace.”
—. “The Duty of Constant Communion.”
—. “When You Fast.”
—. Complete Works of John Wesley.
John and Charles Wesley, Hymns on the Lord’s Supper.

Russians
Anthony Bloom. Beginning to Pray. London, 1970.
Isaac the Syrian (or Isaac of Nineveh). Mystic Treatises. Trans. A. J. Wensinck. Wiesbaden, 1969.
Andrew Louth. Modern Orthodox Thinkers from the Philokalia to the Present. London: SPCK, 2015.
Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and Makarios of Corinth. The Philokalia. Vols 1-4, trans. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, Kallistos Ware. Faber & Faber.
The Way of a Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His Way. Trans. Helen Bacovcin. New York: Image, 1978.
NB: I confess that my source for the missionaries was OrthodoxWiki!

Nazis
Barmen Declaration
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. 1937. English trans from 1959 by R H Fuller and Irmgard Booth.
MacLeod, Dayspring. Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Spoke in the Wheel. 2018.
ten Boom, Corrie with John and Elizabeth Sherrill. The Hiding Place. 1971.

Steve Foster!
Michael Hoskin, The Benefit of Steel: The Life and Times of Dr. Steve Foster.

History of Christianity 4: Reform and the Disciplines (1500-1700)

Here’s this week’s video for the History of Christianity. Here’s the Reformation Handout.

Recommended Reading – If this were a university course, I would assign the following readings:

Three Protestants

Hooker, Richard. 1585. A Learned Discourse of Justification. https://ccel.org/ccel/hooker/just/

Luther, Martin, “On Faith and Coming to Christ,” a sermon from 1528 https://ccel.org/ccel/luther/sermons/sermons.vii.html

Taylor, Jeremy. 1550. The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living, chapter 1: https://ccel.org/ccel/taylor/holy_living/holy_living.iii.html

A Carmelite

John of the Cross. 1575. “The Dark Night of the Soul” (the poem). https://ccel.org/ccel/john_cross/dark_night/dark_night.vi.html

 

Bibliography

Primary Sources

Book of Common Prayer. 1549: http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bcp/1549/BCP_1549.htm

—. 1662: http://www.eskimo.com/~lhowell/bcp1662/index.html

Calvin, John. 1550. The Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life. Available on Scribd with subscription.

—. Institutes of the Christian Religion. https://ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes/

de Brébeuf, Jean. 1642. “The Huron Carol,” on YouTube in Wendat, French, and English: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D6IG6F6E5Ac. The popular English lyrics are not reflective of the Wendat, which the Wendat themselves still sing on Christmas Eve. Here’s a translation of the Wendat: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Huron_Carol#English_Translation_of_the_Wendat

Dositheus of Jerusalem. 1672. Confession. http://www.crivoice.org/creeddositheus.html

Hooker, Richard. 1589-1600. Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/hooker-the-works-of-richard-hooker-vol-1 However, see the modernised version of W. Bradford Littlejohn from the Davenant Institute: https://davenantinstitute.org/product/laws-4-volume-set/

John of the Cross. The Dark Night of the Soul. https://ccel.org/ccel/john_cross/dark_night/dark_night?queryID=3647298&resultID=730

Lucaris, Cyril. 1629. Orthodox Confession. http://www.crivoice.org/creedcyril.html

Luther, Martin. 1517. 95 Theses in Latin and English: https://ccel.org/ccel/luther/theses/theses?queryID=3645877&resultID=1818

—. 1520. The Freedom of a Christian. https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1911

—. Commentary on Romans. https://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/luther/romans/

—. Commentary on Galatians. https://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/luther/galatians/

Teresa of Avila. 1565. The Life of St Teresa (her autobiography). http://www.carmelitemonks.org/Vocation/teresa_life.pdf

—. 1577. The Interior Castle. https://ccel.org/ccel/teresa/castle2/

 

Modern Studies

Endo, Shusaku. 1966. Silence. (This is a novel, not a study.)

Hoskin, Matthew J. J. “Becoming Holy with Richard Hooker,” Ad Fontes, web exclusive: https://davenantinstitute.org/becoming-holy-with-richard-hooker

Littlejohn, W. Bradford. 2015. Richard Hooker: A Companion to His Life and Work. Eugene, OR. Available on Scribd with a subscription.

Peters, Greg. The Story of Monasticism. Baker Publishing, 2015. Available on Scribd with subscription.

Ryrie, Alec. Protestants: The Faith the Made the Modern World. New York, 2017.

My first church history video, Christianity to the year 300

For the next five Mondays, I’m going to  be uploading 20-minute church history videos to YouTube on the theme “Spiritual Disciplines and the Expansion of Christianity.” The first video in the series is now up, covering an introduction to the series and Christianity before Constantine:

This is the first in a five-part series looking very quickly at the history of Christianity. I’d like to acknowledge the technical support from Pastor Ben Spears that made this possible — expect better videos as I get more practice!

I do two things in this week’s video:

First, I introduce my theme: spiritual disciplines and the expansion of Christianity.

Second, I run through church history from Acts to around the year 300.

If this were a university course, I would assign the following readings (all available online):

The Didache (c. 90).

Clement of Alexandria, Paedagogus, Bk 1, chh. 1-3

Henry Chadwick, The Early Church, pp. 32-73, 94-100.

Ancient Sources

Clement of Alexandria. See this page for his works.

Didascalia.

Diocletian. See Eusebius, ‘The Martyrs of Palestine‘.

—. Lactantius, On the Deaths of the Persecutors, chh. 7-19.

Ignatius of Antioch. Letters.

—. See the account of his martyrdom here.

Polycarp of Smyrna. Letter.

—. See the account of his martyrdom here.

The evangelism books I mention towards the end

John Bowen, Evangelism for “Normal” People.

Bill Hybels, Becoming a Contagious Christian.

Rebecca Manley Pippert. Out of the Saltshaker and Into the World.

Roland Allen, The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church.

I missed a trick by not mentioning Michael Green, Evangelism in the Early Church.

Crafting a Rule of Life 1: “From time to time”

A lot of people believe that crafting and following a Rule of Life is a wise way to approach Christian discipleship, inspired by the Desert Fathers and Mothers, St Benedict, St Augustine, the Franciscans, and others. Indeed, although there is nothing monastic about their rules of life, many evangelicals throughout history have committed their lives to disciplined living and a rule of living, from John Wesley to John Stott.

Rev. Kyle Norman recently published a piece on Ministry Matters, a Canadian Anglican webzine, all about the benefits that come from crafting and following a rule of life. A quick historical quibble: the recommendation to follow a rule of life on p. 555 of the 1962 Canadian BCP is not Cranmer’s. I haven’t tracked down its origin. It is not there in 1662 or the Canadian 1918 revision or the proposed English revision of 1928. It is, perhaps, a minor quibble of a historical matter, but I’m a historian, so these things irk me.

Anyway, here’s what we find on p. 555 of the BCP 1962:

Every Christian man or woman should from time to time frame for himself a RULE OF LIFE in accordance with the precepts of the Gospel and the faith and order of the Church; wherein he may consider the following:
The regularity of his attendance at public worship and especially at the holy Communion.
     The practice of private prayer, Bible-reading, and self-discipline.
Bringing the teaching and example of Christ into his everyday life.
The boldness of his spoken witness to his faith in Christ.
His personal service to the Church and the community.
The offering of money according to his means for the support of the work of the Church at home and overseas.

I’ve been thinking recently about what it would take to both craft and follow a Rule of Life. If you’ve put up with reading this blog long enough, you know this isn’t the first time I’ve tried something like this. The likeliness of my success is dependent, I believe, on the external support I have. So I’m going to do a little spiritual bromance to find someone to encourage me on this journey, don’t worry.

As part of this journey, I’ll write about this statement that comes at the end of the Supplementary Instruction of the Canadian Catechism. First, then:

From time to time

I think this phrase is highly significant and likely to be passed over. Now, when they wrote this, I don’t think the revisers of the Prayer Book had my situation in mind. “From time to time, frame a Rule of Life because you can’t stick to one.” I think, rather, they had the necessary flexibility that all these things should hold, in keeping with the historic Protestant approach to the spiritual disciplines.

Despite some unfortunate turns in more recent history, Protestants have historically practised the spiritual disciplines. Our Reformational forebears prayed, read Scripture, meditated on Scripture, fasted, some even confessed sins to one another, engaged in acts of mercy or social activism, ate and dressed with simplicity, and so forth. If they were unmarried, they practised celibacy. Some have lived in communities that hold everything in common.

The Posting of Luther’s 95 Theses by Julius Hübner, 1878

According to Greg Peters (in both The Story of Monasticism and The Monkhood of All Believers), the main criticism Martin Luther and John Calvin had with monastic practice was the perpetuity of the vows — besides, of course, the spiritual elitism that had arisen in late medieval monasticism. Everything else a monk did, Luther and Calvin were in favour of, and even promoted for the lives of ordinary Christians. But the only lifelong vow a Christian was allowed, according to Scripture, was marriage. Whether you agree with them or not, there is one main takeaway for Protestantism:

Asceticism is not antithetical to Christian living.

What this means for the BCP p. 555 is that if one crafts a rule of life, doing so is not contrary to historic Protestantism, certainly not counter to the magisterial Reformation, of the Lutherans and the Reformed, of which the Church of England is a part. It also means that if you do frame a rule of life, you need to do so with enough discernment that if some aspect of your life changes, your rule of life can change with it.

This means that, even if I had succeeded in maintaining the Rule of Life I drafted myself as a student in Edinburgh in 2014, it would have changed when I was a post-doc in Rome in 2015, and then again back at Edinburgh as a lecturer in 2016, but most drastically, it would have changed — probably would have to have been entirely rewritten — in 2017 when my first son was born. And that’s okay.

The Rule of Life has to be flexible because life on earth isn’t static. We are dynamic beings whose circumstances change. What needs to stay central in a Rule of Life is its focus on helping us love God and love others more and its workability — too rigid a Rule of Life will cause us to abandon it.

So it’s time to consider afresh what a Rule of Life means for me in 2020, father of two, unemployed, living with my in-laws under social distancing recommendations. It’ll change, maybe in a few months or sooner, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile.

Worldview and lifestyle: What do you really believe?

Every once in a while I try to think about the connections between the different aspects of classic Christianity I blog about — between theology and spiritual disciplines, usually, although sometimes between different aspects of theology. One of the common teachings we find in books about worldview is that our worldview shapes how we live.

If this is true, most of us are atheists, materialists, and deniers of hell.

In the last point, I think David Bentley Hart once pointed out that if other Christians really believed in the hell of everlasting punishment that they profess, they wouldn’t waste any of their time, would they? Wouldn’t Hart’s intellectual opponents be out on the street preaching, giving away their money to mission work, turning conversations to evangelism, that as many would be saved as possible?

But most Christians don’t live like that, don’t live with any urgency that hell is an immediate possibility for ourselves and our neighbours.

In his cutting book, The Golden Cow, John White (author of the children’s fantasy The Tower of Geburah as well as several non-fiction Christian books for adults) says there are two kinds of materialist. There are the secular materialists who say that matter is all that is. And there are those who say that matter is all that matters. Many evangelical Christians, he contends, fall into this second category. We live the same lives as our neighbours. We strive for more money, for more comfort, etc., etc.

For most of daily life, most of us are what I’ve heard called “practical atheists”. We do not live as though the God of the Universe indwells us, as though any insignificant event may actually have eternal significance. We hardly set aside time for prayer. When we make non-moral decisions, we usually simply choose what is easiest or what we like best, not what is most spiritually beneficial. That latter may require discernment — but how many of us even try to discern anything in our lives?

So, if worldview impacts lifestyle, most of us don’t really believe Gospel, do we?

I, myself, attach my mind quite easily to high ideals. Nevertheless, having read Cassian and Jeremy Taylor about gluttony, I still sat down the other day and drank a bottle of sugary pop and ate 125 g of gummy candies. High ideals are nice unless I actually have to change how I live, right?

My main problems are probably acedia — listless despondency — and not even wanting this enough. That is to say, when it actually comes upon me that I should make some sort of decision for spiritual discipline rather than ease, acedia comes upon me. I feel tired. I feel soooo weary so much of the time. I do not wish to add another burden. So prayer, Scripture reading, disciplined eating …. these are set aside. Just for now. Don’t worry — I’ll do it tomorrow.

Some people say a Rule of Life is a cure for this. (Obviously besides the Holy Spirit seizing us.) Maybe that. Probably also community and spiritual friendship.

I’m thinking about how to make a Rule of Life, so maybe you’ll hear from me on that before too long.

What do you think? How can we cure our practical atheism in comfortable western Christianity?

The spiritual reality of the Ascension

The Ascension by Phoebe Anna Traquair at the Mansfield Traquair Centre, Edinburgh

Someone I know once expressed concern because he learned Bishop Spong says that if Jesus had ascended to heaven, then he was still going up without stopping since there’s nothing up there but outer space. This sort of crass literalism is not even worthy of fundamentalists who know very well that when Jesus ascended, he didn’t go to a place within the physical, material, tangible, visible universe that is measurable by scientific equipment.

But it turns out that Spong doesn’t even believe in heaven, so whether he was willfully misunderstanding orthodoxy or simply stating his own beliefs — “There is no heaven, so Jesus must have kept going, I guess!” — doesn’t really matter. But what this Spong-ian anecdote represents is a certain discomfort some have in our age with the miracle of the Ascension, perhaps because the divine has been boxed in by the Enlightenment, likely also because people assume illiterate, ancient fishermen were idiots who actually thought heaven was a place in the sky.

Although I have not read the entirety of Christian literature, the only person I’ve encountered who seems to think heaven is literally “up there” is Cosmas Indicopleustes, the same guy who is in that minority of fools who believed in a flat earth (most educated people in the ancient and medieval world knew better). And I may even have misunderstood Cosmas, taking the diagrams in the copy of his book too literally. This is an actual possibility, not just me being irenic or falsely modest.

Most thoughtful Christians who have considered what this event means whilst simultaneously asserting its historicity have decided that, when Jesus was hidden from view behind the cloud, he passed from our plane of physical existence into the Throne of God in the Heavens (taking his physical, human body with Him!!). It strikes me that there may be spiritual significance in God’s use of a cloud, although it may simply have been the most convenient thing for the moment.

Here is the take we find on this event in The Cloud of Unknowing:

[Ch. 59] And if you are going to refer me to our Lord’s Ascension, and say it must have physical significance as well as spiritual, seeing it was a physical body that ascended, and he is true God and true Man, my answer is that he had been dead, and then was clothed with immortality; and so shall we be at the Day of Judgement. At that time we shall be so rarefied in our body-and-soul, that we shall be able to go physically wherever we will as swiftly as we can now go anywhere mentally in thought. Up, down, sideways, backwards, forwards — it will be all the same to us, and good, so the scholars say. But at the present time you cannot go to heaven physically, but only spiritually. And it is so really spiritual that it is not physical at all: neither above or below us, beside or behind or before.

[Ch. 60] Now perhaps you are saying, ‘But how do you arrive at these conclusions?’ For you are thinking you have real evidence that heaven is up above, for Christ ascended physically upwards, and, later, sent the Holy Spirit, as he promised, from above, unseen by any disciple. And we believe this. And therefore, you think, with this real evidence before you, why should you not direct your mind literally upward when you pray?

I will answer this as best I can, however inadequately. Since it had to be that Christ should ascend physically, and then send the Holy Spirit in tangible form, it was more suitable that it should be ‘upwards’, and ‘from above’, than it should be ‘downwards’ and ‘from beneath’, ‘from behind, from the front, or from the sides’. Apart from this matter of suitability, there was no more need for him to have gone upwards than downwards, the way is so near. For, spiritually, heaven is as near down as up, up as down, behind as before, before as behind, on this side as on that! So that whoever really wanted to be in heaven, he is there and then in heaven spiritually. For we run the high way (and the quickest) to heaven on our own desires, and not on our two feet. So St Paul speaks for himself and many others when he says that although our bodies are actually here on earth, we are living in heaven. (Phil. 3:20) -Trans. Clifton Wolters, chh. 59, 60, pp. 125-127

While there are some late medieval mystical works that should be classed as “outliers” and not representative of Christian tradition more widely, on this point, at least, The Cloud of Unknowing is not an outlier. There is thus no theological reason to doubt that Jesus actually did rise up into the air before vanishing from his disciples’ sight. Believing in the historicity of the Ascension neither makes you a fundamentalist, nor necessitates Jesus continually ascending through the reaches of interstellar space.

So celebrate the Ascension tomorrow without feeling like you must turn off your brain.