Catholic Anglican thoughts (again)

13th-c mosaic on loggia, Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

I think that perhaps one of the great problems with our society is that too many of us spend time thinking about our identities. For me, I spend time thinking about my religious identity. In particular, I often find myself feeling somewhat alone as a catholic Anglican — and not an Anglo-Catholic.

Like the majority tradition of Anglicanism, I embrace the teachings of the Fathers, the 39 Articles, the BCP, and what I’ve read of the Books of Homilies so far. I agree with Richard Hooker so much I wrote an essay recommending him for a real publication (as opposed to just another blog post). Moreover, I cherish the poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Guite, as well as the hymns of Charles Wesley and JM Neale. I recently called Lancelot Andrewes a saint, so there’s that in the mix, too!

Most of this doesn’t really make me much of “catholic”, though, does it? I mean, it mostly makes me an Anglican. I reckon John Wesley liked those things, too, except for the ones from after he died.

But what if I told you, despite spending 8 years as a Presbyterian, the only other church that seemed truly enticing was the Eastern Orthodox Church? That an Orthodox priest (now bishop!) once said that I am Orthodox in all but name? Although this actually isn’t true (I don’t seek saints to intercede for me [filed under: 39 Articles] or believe in tollhouses [filed under: umm…], to grab two really quick examples), I do have enormous respect for the Eastern Church and think that we can learn a lot from them in the West after a few centuries of Enlightenment and Romanticism under our belts.

So, yeah, I read St Sophrony, St Porphyrios, Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, Father Andrew Louth, The Way of a Pilgrim, and others in my devotional time. I love the Greek Fathers, and sometimes I think I’m a Palamite. Byzantine chant and Byzantine icons, yes, please. I love the Divine Liturgy of Our Father Among the Saints John Chrysostom. Once when I was in a foul mood, I read the Divine Liturgy of Our Father Among the Saints Basil the Great just to cheer me up. And it’s beautiful and rich and makes anything from the West post-Vatican II (BAS and Common Worship, I’m looking at you) look like wading in shallow water when God has given us the skills requisite and necessary for surfing (or something like that).

I embrace the ancient and medieval heritage of the church — as interpreted through the 39 Articles and the BCP. Give me St Augustine. Give St Maximus the Confessor. Give me St Anselm and St John of Damascus and the Venerable Bede and St Benedict of Nursia and St Symeon the New Theologian and St Gregory of Nyssa and The Cloud of Unknowing and St John of the Ladder and St John of the Cross and St Bernard of Clairvaux and St Gregory of Nazianzus and St Basil of Caesarea and Origen of Alexander and St Athanasius of Alexandria and St Irenaeus of Lyons and Pope St Leo the Great and Pope St Gregory the Great and St Cyprian of Carthage and St Francis of Assisi and St Bonaventure and Stephen Langton and Julian of Norwich and Richard Rolle and Walter Hilton and Aelfric of Eynsham and Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Pearl and The Dream of the Rood.

Give me the Ruthwell Cross. Give me Mt Athos. Give the Benediktinerstift Sankt Paul im Lavanttal. Give me St Paul’s in London. Give me Durham Cathedral. Give me the Durham Gospels.

Give me these things, clothe them in the music of Tallis or Purcell or Gibbons. I’ll kiss your icons. I once kissed the alleged crozier of St Gregory. Give me the Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament. Give me a little incense.

Give me these things, for when I encounter these things, I find Jesus in them.

Most of all, then: give me Jesus.

And I find that Jesus is found in this catholic Anglicanism. I find him there better than elsewhere — whether because of my own temperament or something in the nature of the catholic tradition itself. But Jesus comes to me in the poetry of John Donne and the teachings of the Orthodox monks. He comes when I read Pearl and I am drawn up to him through the architecture of a place like York Minster.

IRL, one finds oneself with almost no Anglicans round about, and few digging deep into this.

But Jesus comes amidst them, anyway — of course.

This is part of the secret of the catholic tradition, that God is always right there waiting for you. If you can cultivate hesychia and find, by grace, some level of purity of heart, you will find Jesus wherever you are, and not just listening to Byzantine chant on Spotify or with fellow catholics on Twitter, but at your own local parish.

Watch out for him. He’s there. Pray the Jesus Prayer. Memorise a poem or two by John Donne. Like St Pachomius, see God wherever He is, especially in your brother in Christ. He’ll be there — he has promised he will.

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Richard Hooker and Union with God

My latest YouTube video was made on the commemoration of Richard Hooker on November 3. In it, I discuss his Christology in relation to Chalcedon but most especially in relation to you and your union with God and participation in the divine life. Enjoy!

Endless distraction vs monastic simplicity

As you may see in the sidebar of this blog, I am on Twitter. I initially joined under my own name in 2017 as a means to have and control a public professional persona. This purpose remains, but, after starting to teach for Davenant Hall, this public persona has expanded to include some of my own personal religious views, including this blog. And, to be honest, this self-promotion is also aimed to hopefully gain a few students.

Twitter — and even a private Discord server such as we have for The Davenant Institute — can be a great way to meet people. I have expanded my army of friends, and I am happy for that. Twitter and other social media — Facebook, Instagram, etc. — can also be a great way to distract yourself. And be endlessly distracted.

Sometimes, it’s okay. I’m willing to concede that we need a bit of distraction sometimes. It’s part of relaxation and restoration, I think. Take your mind off the pressures of daily life by following, say, @red_loeb to see images from medieval manuscripts, to name just one example. There are some interesting, amusing, informative, entertaining Twitter accounts to add to your feed.

Sometimes, it’s less okay. Like, say, the vast eruptions that happened after the USA’s Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Or when you see some less-than-pleasant characters falsely characterising your own religious beliefs. Or when you watch, say, a video of a news presenter taking down a flummoxed pastor over hot-button cultural issues. You get this fire burning in you, sometimes. Or you can’t direct your energy where it should be (*glances at The Life of Saint Pachomius*), continually thinking about the assault you have levelled against your nous.

I once Tweeted that Twitter is like having your nous assaulted by all 8 Evagrian thoughts at once.

The monks of the Desert would not have appreciated something like Twitter. Tonight in my Desert Fathers course for Davenant Hall, I am teaching about Pachomius, the reputedly first abbot of a coenobium, of a monastery designed for communal living. The monks were meant to live undistracted lives. This meant that if any of them had to leave the monastery on business, they weren’t allowed to tell the brothers what they had seen or heard. If someone came to the monastery, the porter was the only person they were allowed to interact with. Tabennisi, the village where the first Pachomian monastery was founded, was an abandoned village. Even walks in the abandoned village were not allowed.

Elsewhere, of course, in the anchoritic literature, we hear of monks refusing to listen to news of the outside world. Or they ignore people from outside sometimes. They avoid talking, even if news isn’t the subject. Curiosity, even about ones family that was left behind, is considered dangerous.

The point of all this is to help cultivate a heart that is undistracted and undivided. The monk is someone who is single-minded. Monks are monomaniacs for God. They aren’t interested in the emperor’s doings. They aren’t interested in visits from the priests of the outside world. They aren’t even that interested in the inner world of their souls, except inasmuch as it can help or hinder in the raising up of the monk to God.

Now, Twitter is actually part of my livelihood, since tuition pays my salary. So I’ll stay there. But we all need to know when to logoff and unplug and sit, undistracted, pursuing God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. The simplicity of the monks and their spiritual practices, I believe, can help us there.

For me, as you no doubt know, a major monastic practice has been the Jesus Prayer — listen to my and my brother’s podcast to hear some more!

The beauty and glory of the Trinity

My latest YouTube video went up last week, entitled “The beauty and glory of the Trinity” wherein I make a contribution to some of the theological shenanigans going on on Twitter (you need not know said shenanigans to enjoy the video!). I hope you are blessed by this video.

St Romanos the Melodist

I’m writing this post on October 1, the feast of St Romanos the Melodist (or St Romanus, sometimes Melodos instead of “the Melodist”). St Romanos was born in the late 400s in Emesa, Syria, and spent his professional career in Constantinople, moving to the imperial city during the reign of Emperor Anastasius I (r. 491-518). I won’t linger on the hagiography. While there, Romanos was enlisted as a professional hymnographer by the patriarch and composed a vast number of hymns for the different feasts of the church. Verses of some of these hymns have been incorporated into the round of liturgical hymn-singing in the Eastern Orthodox Church to this day. His greatest period of activity would be during the reigns of Justin (518-527) and Justinian (527-565); he died some time after 555.

He is claimed to have written around 1500 hymns. People typically balk at numbers like this, but I learned recently that in the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, they have poets who compose a new hymn every Sunday and every major feast day. Most of these hymns are not written down and preserved, but some are. Besides being evidence for something mighty in Ethiopia and the ongoing life of Ge’ez as a literary language, this parallel makes me wonder if perhaps Romanos did write 1500 hymns, but only some of them were polished and published.

His hymns are quite long, taking after the hymns of our dear friend St Ephrem the Syrian. They often include dialogue, or an address on the part of the hymnographer to a character in a biblical scene. The hymns are steeped in Scripture and bring forth, in true poetry, the theology of the drama of salvation. I feel as though St Romanos is possibly the greatest theologian of the age of Justinian, although that usually goes to Leontius of Byzantium.

Allow me to close with a sample of St Romanos’ work, taken from the translation by Archimandrite Ephrem Lash and preserved by the Wayback Machine. This is the Prooemion from Kontakion 22; the Prooemion and first Ikos are still used in the Orthodox Church on the Third Sunday in Lent.

ON THE VICTORY OF THE CROSS

Acrostic: BY THE HUMBLE ROMANOS
Proemium 1. Idiomel.
The sword of flame no longer guards the gate of Eden,
For a strange bond came upon it: the wood of the Cross.
The sting of Death and the victory of Hades were nailed to it.
But you appeared, my Saviour, crying to those in Hades:
‘Be brought back
Again to Paradise’.


Proemium 2.
Nailed to the form of the Cross
As truly a ransom for many
You redeemed us, Christ our God,
For by your precious blood in love for mankind
You snatched our souls from death.
You brought us back with you
Again to Paradise.


Proemium 3.
All things in heaven and earth rightly rejoice with Adam,
Because he has been called
Again to Paradise.

The Crucifixion, Studenica, Serbia. 1310s.

My brother and I started a podcast

My brother Jonathan and I started a podcast. It’s called “Devotion to Christ: Anglican Spirituality, a Tradition for Today.” Our discussions will be anchored in the Book of Common Prayer to prevent it from ranging everywhere and thus becoming nothing in particular. But we’ll also bring in Scripture and the Anglican divines. That said, using the first episode as evidence, when I talk off the top of my head, I bring in things like Met. Anthony Bloom’s book Living Prayer, St Seraphim of Sarov, and St Theophan the Recluse. (At least, I think I brought in St Theophan.)

Why do a new podcast when about a gazillion (give or take) already exist?

Our combination of shared personal history but differing professional expertise makes for interesting conversations, for one thing. He’s an actual minister who preaches, so he’s good at finding concrete, real life things to say to make a topic relevant. I, on the other hand, am an academic, so I tend to bring us back to the sources (in our first episode, this would be the BCP). I also have a lot of ancient and Orthodox sources informing what I say, whereas he is stronger on the actual Anglican tradition than I am.

Another reason is that people desperately need to know Jesus — they need to know Him better, or even at all. The various things our communities, lives, churches, institutions, are doing aren’t necessarily producing deeper, more, or “better” disciples, which is to say, they aren’t helping people know Jesus. We think the Anglican devotional tradition can help people know Jesus better as his disciples. So maybe, by having people listen to us talk about it for half an hour every two weeks, they’ll be strengthened and encouraged to know Jesus more.

Finally, we’re both fans of the daily office, and even started a dispersed community called The Witness Cloud to promote it — maybe our podcast will help recruit for the Witness Cloud and the daily office as a means of grace.

You can find us on the podcast website, on Spotify, on Apple Podcasts, on Amazon, and elsewhere as I sort out distribution. I’ll also be uploading videos of the episodes to YouTube, as you see below:

Household as monastery

The other day, I — @mjjhoskin — tweeted that one way to incorporate monastic wisdom into your life is to imagine that the members of your family are fellow monastics. Like that time my five-year-old ran through the kitchen naked. That could have happened in the deserts of Egypt or Syria.

One commenter noted that climbing a tree and refusing to come down for 30 years also fits. (See Mar Abraham the Dendrite in the Lives of Eastern Saints by John of Ephesus.)

My fellow monks at leisure last week.

This thought was inspired by St Evagrius Ponticus, Foundations of the Monastic Life. Evagrius argues that marriage and children are distractions that will keep him hesychia, closing the first section with the exhortation:

Do you want therefore, beloved, to take up the solitary life for what it is, and to race after the trophies of stillness? Leave behind the concerns of the world, the principalities and powers set over them (Eph. 6:12); that is, stand free of material concerns and the passions, beyond all desire, so that as you become a stranger to the conditions deriving from these you may be able to cultivate stillness properly. For if one were not to extricate himself from these, he would not be able to live this way of life successfully.

Evagrius Ponticus, Foundations of the Monastic Life, ch. 3, trans. Robert E Sinkewicz, in Evagrius of Pontus: The Greek Ascetic Corpus (Oxford, 2003), p. 5.

The telos of the monastic life is life-with-God. It is contemplation/theoria of the most holy Trinity (Keph. Gnos. 1.27). It is pure prayer where we lose the vision of our conscious selves, as described most beautifully by Evagrius’ student, Cassian, here. For Evagrius, we seek apatheia (dispassion, purity of heart) in order to reach out for the invisible God in a place of hesychia (stillness, calmness, peace, rest).

The married man, as St Paul even notes, will have his thoughts divided and not be able to achieve hesychia as purely as the solitary, the anchorite, the monachos.

The brothers at work.

What if we took the intrusions into our stillness that a family readily provides and turned them into opportunities of grace? Consider the two photos in this post so far. One is of my sons on a slip-and-slide (although I see only one child). The other is of them at “the work site” (aka the dirt beside the house). In both, they are playing hard. Play is the serious business of childhood, after all. The running, the noise, the laughter, and so forth — these can all be a hindrance to classic theoria, classic contemplation. And certainly, I, as the supervising adult, cannot lose myself in prayer like a monk alone in a cave.

But I can still use these patches of Godlight (a Father Tim phrase from Jan Karon’s Mitford novels) to find a kind of rest, stillness, peace. Enjoy the little boys now — everyone tells me to. Their laughter and silliness and all of that — that is grace and joy and happiness. Resting in these moments, enjoying these moments, laughing with them, and not begrudging their madnesses — these are how to turn the chaos of family life into inner hesychia.

Consider two scenarios. A father with his morning coffee wishes to read some Evagrius (this father is me). However, the boys wish to dance around arhythmically to John Michael Talbot, hop like bunnies, bounce like kangaroos, spin like tops, even. Scenario one: Annoyed father tries to do some spiritual reading (this father is sometimes me). Scenario two: Thankful father puts book down and watches children, grateful to God for the gift of the small sons (this father is sometimes me).

Which scenario contains a closer approximation of hesychia?

Not exactly St John’s Ladder of Divine Ascent

Now, making the household “monastic” in other ways, with regular rhythms for corporate and private prayer, doing family devotions, pursuing simplicity in various areas, etc., feels like it should go without saying. It’s really the question of how you deal with your fellow inmates that I want to prod here today.

Take the happy times as grace and find God there.

Take the hard times as grace and find God there.

Consider, as parent, that you are an abbot as St John Cassian describes, and that therefore your greatest concern is the spiritual growth of the monks. Take that more seriously than anything, and then your own times of theoria or lectio divina or whatever your prayer rule includes.

What I’m really pressing at, then, is a combination of Paul Evdokimov’s interior monasticism and Jean-Pierre de Caussade’s sacrament of the present moment. Take hold of the moment that God has thrust you into as a spouse and parent, whether it is cooking food, doing laundry, playing with children, reading a book of your own choosing, gazing longingly at a fast-cooling cup of coffee, and find God in it.

Then you can find holy hesychia and contemplate the Most Holy Trinity.

Reformed catholic? (Part two)

In my last post, I talked a bit about my slow development to a willingness to use the term “Reformed” — but what about catholic? How is a person both? Well, this has sort of a broad, historical answer, and a narrow, personal answer.

Broad, historical answer

The broad, historical answer is that the Reformers and others in the early Protestant movement considered themselves “catholic”. And a lot of them would have considered those whom we commonly call “Catholics” today Romish or Popish or Papist or at least members of the Roman Church. Now, we don’t need to get into the latter part. It is enough to note that the early Protestant movement saw itself as catholic.

Catholic, as you may know, means universal. The magisterial Reformation (Lutherans, the Reformed, Anglicans), tended to see themselves as the continuing life of the apostolic church. That strand in the Church of England that would come to define Anglicanism (and, thus, for self-definition, something that matters more for me than would the ideas of Luther or Melanchthon or Calvin or Knox) frequently saw itself as restoring the Church of England to an existence prior to the abuses of the later Middle Ages.

Matthew Parker (Archbishop of Canterbury, 1559-1575) was really into this vision of the Church of England. For example, he argued that what the reforms were doing was bringing the church back to how it was in 597 under St Augustine of Canterbury. This, sadly, is not true. But it’s a lovely idea, and it shows the ideals of the English Reformation. He also, notably, printed the sermon of Aelfric of Eynsham (d. 1010) on the Holy Communion to argue that transubstantiation was a later addition to the dogma of the church, and that the C of E was just restoring the ancient doctrine of the church on this matter. In this way, the Reformational, or even Reformed, Church of England was very catholic, seeking to stand in continuity with the universal church in history.

Similarly, Richard Hooker, who is often cited as being the progenitor of real “Anglican” theology, litters The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity with references to the Fathers. His treatment of the Eucharist, for example, cites many of the early fathers in support of his position. That said, you could just as easily deploy a different set of fathers against Hooker’s position, so his catholicity is not as cut-and-dried as all that.

Finally, it is worth remembering that the catholic church of medieval Latin Christendom was deeply and thoroughly Augustinian. Sts Augustine and Gregory the Great are the two most cited and read fathers throughout the entire Middle Ages. Whatever else went on in the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, both movements were a reinvestment in the teachings of St Augustine of Hippo in the church’s approach to questions of justification, grace, merit, etc. Both sides are Augustinian, they just read him differently.

There’s more that could be said about the relationship of the early Protestants to Scholasticism and to the Eastern Churches and to more recent things like St Thomas a Kempis and the Devotio Moderna, but I’ll just leave it there, simply noting that a vast quantity of medieval theology and medieval piety was part of the inheritance of the Reformers and the Protestant Scholastics.

Narrow, personal answer

As I said in the last post, when I was going through a bit of a spiritual crisis during my year in Durham, my brother called me a “catholic Anglican”, and a friend sent me a copy of Alexander de Hale’s commentary on Peter Lombard about grace. Moreover, I had coffee with Father Andrew Louth at his home in Darlington. Father Andrew is a great man — he writes good, important books full of big thoughts, but is also ready to sit with a cup of coffee in his study with a young man searching for help and answers.

Anyway, those three facts about the hard year in Durham are indicative of my personal, spiritual trajectory for many years. I read books by desert monks and modern Athonite elders. I pray the Jesus Prayer. I sometimes (less than I’d like) pray Morning and Evening Prayer. I read medieval mystics. I sometimes attend Orthodox Vespers, maybe even the divine liturgy.

Add to this my embrace of the patristic heritage, including the spiritual sense of Scripture, not to mention the wonders of St Maximus the Confessor as he draws deeply from the Cappadocian well, bringing forth the beautiful synthesis of the trajectories of both Athanasius and Evagrius, and you start to see how I am pretty … catholic.

Nevertheless, I affirm the Articles of Religion, which excludes me from being Roman Catholic. I believe in justification by faith in a Luther kind of way. I also hold to a historically Anglican understanding of the relationship between Scripture and tradition. Some days, I admit that I’m not wholly certain about the Eucharist — but not because Baptist memorialists sway me to be “more ‘Protestant'”, but because St Cyril sways me to be less. Or, maybe, to be more Luther.

So, yes. Catholic. Most assuredly.

Reformed catholic? (Part one)

I think I might be Reformed?

The labels we give ourselves are not always that important — what matters in, say, a religious/spiritual “label” is that a person is seeking to know and live according to the truth. Sometimes getting the words just right can be a bit of an unhealthy obsession, though — either because you are trying to overdefine yourself, or because you are trying to watch out for every possible misinterpretation someone else could have. Beyond religion (or, rather, in the false religions of fandom):

“Not a mere Trekkie — a Trekker.” This, when I liked Star Wars more than Star Trek, led to, “What do you call a Star Wars fan?”

Anyway, why might I cautiously say I might be Reformed? What do I mean by this? Why the hesitation? Why do I couple Reformed with catholic? Am I a Calvinist papist?

For most of my life, like so many in the pre-schismatic Anglican church, I was happily and proudly Anglican, embracing the 39 Articles and BCP (and Solemn Declaration of 1893) as doctrinal norms, but fighting with the article about predestination. So, by no means a Calvinist. In fact, the common view for many of us in the Anglican Church of Canada, at least, whether liberal, conservative, evangelical, charismatic, was that we are our own thing, our own branch of Protestantism, growing in our own crooked path beside Lutherans and the Reformed, but perhaps twisting our path on some patterns clser to Rome than either, especially the Reformed.

As a teenager, the whole “Calvinism” vs “Arminianism” debate was a Thing. I remember a friend’s dad — a Baptist fellow and big fan of John Piper — asking me whether the Anglican Church was Calvinist or Arminian. And I happily said neither. I mean, when pressed, the 39 Articles skew closer to Dordt than to Arminius, but to slap the word “Calvinist” on a doctrinal standard that has nothing to do with him and everything to do with the Augustinianism of the western church — well, that seems misguided. Not that my answer at age 17 was anything like that!

But I recall asking an Anglican ordinand about this sort of thing, and he said he preferred calling himself Reformed to Calvinist. The Reformed tradition is bigger than John Calvin and is not simply his church, although he is one of its early founders. This makes sense.

But when I was asking that ordinand about such things, I was also meeting a variety of people within Anglican circles (we’re still pre-schism here, folks) who were probably New Calvinists, some of whom read more Presbyterians than Anglicans, who said things like, “Luther started the Reformation, and Calvin ended it,” who were laying claim to Anglicanism for themselves in a way that seemed to say to me, “Any vision of Anglican theology that is not New Calvinist is not real Anglicanism.”

I wasn’t interested.

As we entered the age of social media, I had my chance to play with my religious descriptors. “East-leaning, Franciscan Anglican” was one that I recall using on Facebook. I knew “Anglican” would never be enough. Anglican could mean almost anything doctrinally. And after some of the liturgical free-for-alls I’ve met, it may sometimes mean nothing liturgically, to boot!

But then I spent six/seven years in Edinburgh (9 months of this time I was going back and forth between Edinburgh and Rome). My regular Sunday church of which I eventually became a member was the Free Church of Scotland, a Reformed denomination if ever there was one. Reformed and evangelical. And, when we started, super-old school with naught but a cappella Psalms. I also frequently attended Greek Orthodox Vespers and had the local Orthodox priest as a spiritual mentor.

By the time we went to England in 2017, I was still not Reformed, but I was no longer allergic to them.

However, the church we attended with greatest frequency in Durham led to some problems in terms of self-identification. People said some crazy stuff up at the front, such as how grace does not make us holy, it only justifies us (in a narrow, forensic sense), and we stay otherwise the same. That was whack. At the same time, I was reading a lot of mediaeval canon law and Eastern Orthodox stuff, not to mention a deep dive into St Benedict. Was I even Protestant anymore? A friend of mine wondered if these labels were that helpful these days, and to help guide me pastorally, gave me his edition and translation of Alexander de Hales’ commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, specifically the sections on grace. Well, Alexander helped with the question of grace, but not the question of Protestantism!

And my brother unhelpfully said that I sounded like a catholic Anglican. That’s probably still my go-to.

Fast forward, please, to my year of unemployment, 2019-2020. During this year, I sent out tendrils everywhere seeking academic work. One place was Davenant Hall — Brad Littlejohn, the President of the Davenant Institute, did his PhD at Edinburgh a few years ahead of me, so I knew him from the time we overlapped. I was also nudged by a friend to consider doing a Cascade Companion on my favourite monastic author; these two things dovetailed in reading Brad’s Cascade Companion to Richard Hooker, Richard Hooker: A Companion to His Life and Work.

Brad Littlejohn’s work on Richard Hooker opened my eyes to what my ordinand friend had said so many years previously, about the bigness of the Reformed tradition. It also helpfully laid to rest some notions about early Anglicanism and Richard Hooker you’ve probably heard, most notably that he consciously pursued a “middle way” (via media) between Roman Catholicism and the Reformed. In fact, Richard Hooker was very much part of a large, Reformed world on both sides of the Channel. In essence, Hooker believes that those “Catholic” of Anglicanism as simply part of healthy, Reformed Christianity. I’ve no doubt misrepresented both Brad and Hooker; read the book for yourself.

Well, that made me more comfortable with the idea of being Reformed and Anglican — I didn’t have to become a New Calvinist or move to Sydney or agree with the style of preaching at St Helen’s Bishopsgate in London. *whew*

In January 2021, I started teaching for Davenant Hall, and engaging with a lot of the wonderful people associated with the Davenant Institute. My first course was “The Theological World of the Nicene Controversy”, and my second was “Augustine: The Major Works.” And now, although I’d read huge quantities of Augustine before, I read Augustine on predestination at great length for the first time (I’d read On Grace and Free Will ages ago [2006?], actually), and I really couldn’t see a way around Augustinian predestinarianism. I’d rather it were otherwise, for I have a soft spot for St John Cassian, and ever will. I will always take note of what Cassian is attempting to do in Conference 13 and why that pursuit of balance between divine sovereignty and human responsibility is important. But I simply think that Augustine is right. [Enter trolls in the comments, I assume?]

And so, over the past year, as a guy who thinks he believes in predestination, I’ve been interacting with these really great people, a lot of whom are Reformed, and I’ve even read some Bavinck, and then also, at a quicker pace, James K A Smith’s Letters to a Young Calvinist, and I’ve been seeing the breadth and diversity of the Reformed tradition, how these great thinkers old and new engage with the patristic and medieval heritage in a thoughtful way, seeking retrieval where possible, but always letting Scripture win while also pressing our forebears in the faith in terms of logic and reason.

And so I’ve learned about people like Franciscus Junius and Peter Martyr Vermigli and their relationship with Scholasticism, besides seeing living Reformed thinkers engaging with Thomas Aquinas and Maximus the Confessor and Hilary of Poitiers and all the rest — all of this in a time when I’ve also been revising my book about medieval manuscripts of a patristic pope, teaching the Fathers, teaching the medieval church, and maintaining my usual round of Orthodox thinkers.

And one of the terms I’ve seen a few times is Reformed catholic. And I’m starting to like it.

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.