Anglican Tradition and the Bible

The other night I listened to Alastair Roberts read Homily 1, “A Fruitful Exhortation to the Reading of Holy Scripture” from the 16th-century Anglican Book of Homilies (Book 1 first published 1542). I had lots of thoughts, most of which have escaped me, but here are two:

First, go and read the Bible. If you’re feeling a bit like you aren’t into it or haven’t read it for a while or anything like, go listen to Alastair read the homily. It’s only 18 minutes long, and it will fruitfully exhort you to read the Bible.

Second, one of the thoughts I had was how this reinforces ideas about Anglican worship and spirituality that I’ve heard people say and observed from inference. In particular, this homily reinforces the Reformation-era Anglican idea that the words of Holy Scripture are themselves powerful.

Reading the Bible or listening to someone read the Bible is good for you.

Sometimes you meet people (or read them on Twitter, I guess) who seem to think that a church loves the Bible because congregants spend a lot of time listening to a person talk about the Bible. I’m not saying those people don’t love the Bible. Nor am I saying that Anglicans love the Bible more.

However, Homily 1 represents a robust trust in the power of sacred Scripture to transform hearts and minds, to make us holier, to make us more Christ-like. In the Bible we encounter God, and God can transform us.

This trust is reflected liturgically in the Anglican tradition’s historic cycle of services. Historically, the Anglican liturgical tradition on a Sunday would have included Morning Prayer, followed immediately by Communion (or Antecommunion), and then Evening Prayer in the evening (naturally enough), coupled with a requirement for clergy and encouragement for laity to pray Morning and Evening Prayer every day, and for the lay folk to join their local cleric in the church if possible.

This centrality of Morning and Evening Prayer to Anglican worship is well worth noting, because these services differ most from their medieval Sarum precursors precisely in the question of Scripture. If you grab a Roman Breviary or Benedictine Breviary, you will find that the passages of Scripture selected for the daily office are … brief, in large part because of how complicated the Roman church’s daily office is, partly also because, for monks, at least, there is an expectation that you will read the Bible at some other part of the day. I would also hasten to add that medieval liturgy has all sorts of Scripture in use in different parts of the various services and offices; when you simplify your liturgy and reduce the number of offices, this needs rebalancing — as the BCP does.

In the BCP, on the other hand, the passages for Morning and Evening Prayer are quite substantial. If you follow the Prayer Book lectionary for daily prayer, you will read the entire Old Testament every year, the New Testament twice a year, and the Psalms every month. That’s a lot of sacred Scripture!

And if you look at the rubrics, there is no expectation that there will be preaching at any service outside Holy Communion. What matters are the words of Scripture themselves. Yes, Anglicans believe in preaching the Word (the Homily discusses that as well). But we also believe in the naked power of the raw Word of God, bringing us into contact with the God Word Himself Who lies behind the word written.

This sturdy belief in the power of the Bible is implicit in the Prayer Book, and explicit in Homily 1.

More of us should read or listen to these.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Reading Boethius at age 38

Wheel! Of! Fortune!
Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Fr. 809, fol. 40r (15th c.).

Two nights ago, I sat reading at the top of the stairs within earshot of my sons’ room. I was ready to lay down the law if the goblins weren’t keeping quiet. I did — some stern words were uttered. Silence reigned. If they don’t get enough sleep, they are increasingly unmanageable. As I sat uncomfortable and only able to half listen, I was reading The Old English Boethius.

Sort of appropriate.

I’m not comparing completely normal parenting woes to being imprisoned on suspicion of treason by King Theoderic the Great (which was Boethius’ situation when he wrote the Consolation of Philosophy). But the underlying theme of the Consolation is that age-old question: Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do the wicked prosper? This question is the cry at the heart of Boethius the character as he engages in conversation with Wisdom/Philosophia, a cry stretching back at least to the book of Psalms. Psalm 73:1-15:

TRULY God is loving unto Israel : even unto such as are of a clean heart.
2. Nevertheless, my feet were almost gone : my treadings had well-nigh slipt.
3. And why? I was grieved at the wicked : I do also see the ungodly in such prosperity.
4. For they are in no peril of death : but are lusty and strong.
5. They come in no misfortune like other folk : neither are they plagued like other men.
6. And this is the cause that they are so holden with pride : and overwhelmed with cruelty.
7. Their eyes swell with fatness : and they do even what they lust.
8. They corrupt other, and speak of wicked blasphemy : their talking is against the most High.
9. For they stretch forth their mouth unto the heaven : and their tongue goeth through the world.
10. Therefore fall the people unto them : and thereout suck they no small advantage.
11. Tush, say they, how should God perceive it : is there knowledge in the most High?
12. Lo, these are the ungodly, these prosper in the world, and these have riches in possession : and I said, Then have I cleansed my heart in vain, and washed mine hands in innocency.
13. All the day long have I been punished : and chastened every morning.
14. Yea, and I had almost said even as they : but lo, then I should have condemned the generation of thy children.
15. Then thought I to understand this : but it was too hard for me,

1662 BCP/Coverdale

When I first read Boethius’ Consolatio I was 20 or 21 (I think). I typically have two books on the go for leisure reading — something fictional and something Christian. I recall at the time having a conversation with the friend who first mentioned Boethius to me that it didn’t really feel very Christian to me, and certainly not as “helpful” as my then-standard fare (I honestly can’t remember what Christian books I read in undergrad besides CS Lewis stuff, Bonhoeffer’s Christology, and Ridenour’s How to Be a Christian without Being Religious).

Maybe I just hadn’t suffered enough. Now, round three through Boethius, I find his concerns eminently relatable and the teaching of Wisdom (in OE, rather than Philosophia in Latin) something of a balm. Being parents has not always been easy on my wife and me. I was unemployed for a year within recent memory. I never landed the academic job I wanted. I am actually mostly between jobs just now.

This list is not exhaustive.

I am, 18 or so years on from first reading Boethius, in a place where reading the modern English translation of the Old English translation of the Consolation of Philosophy is blessing me. As I sit in the midst of uncertainty with various troubles besetting my world, I am called to consider what are those goods that endure.

Position? Influence? Power? Money?

Pat Sajak spins the wheel, and you fall from these at the snap of Wyrd’s fingers (Wyrd, or Fate, takes Fortuna’s place in Old English).

Wisdom calls us to a different life, and not just the life of the mind, not just the life of reason (although he certainly does this). The Old English Boethius makes explicit the moral and ethical demands Wisdom makes upon those who would pursue him, demands implicit in the original in its discussion of Philosophia.

And what do you enjoy if you pursue and hold tight to wisdom?

Therefore the wise always lead
an untroubled life without change,
when they renounce all earthly good
and also remain untroubled by those evils,
looking for the eternal things which come afterward.
Then almighty God keeps him
in every way perpetually
continuing in his mind’s own
blessings through the grace of the creator,
though the wind of worldly troubles
may greatly afflict him and care may constantly
hinder him when the wind of worldly fortunes
blows cruelly and fiercely on him,
and though the distraction of these worldly fortunes
may always terribly afflict him.

The Old English Boethius, trans. Irvine and Godden, Meter 7, ll. 40-54, p. 65.

I find this more comforting in the midst of worldly trouble than people quoting Jeremiah 29:11 (For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. [NIV]), because I think, “Well, the Lord’s plans for Russia in 1917 included Bolshevism, and his plans for Cranmer, Latimer, and Ridley involved being burned at the stake.”

But the Christian philosophy of Boethius, drawing on the best ideas of Aristotle and Augustine, knows such realities all too well. Thus, he doesn’t and cannot look to a “better future” unless that future is rooted in his own inner man, his own conduct, his own mind. And that is where hope and consolation are to be found.

Boethius aligns well with the Psalmist. And so I close with the final verses of Psalm 73:

20. Thus my heart was grieved : and it went even through my reins.
21. So foolish was I, and ignorant : even as it were a beast before thee.
22. Nevertheless, I am alway by thee : for thou hast holden me by my right hand.
23. Thou shalt guide me with thy counsel : and after that receive me with glory.
24. Whom have I in heaven but thee : and there is none upon earth that I desire in comparison of thee.
25. My flesh and my heart faileth : but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever.
26. For lo, they that forsake thee shall perish : thou hast destroyed all them that commit fornication against thee.
27. But it is good for me to hold me fast by God, to put my trust in the Lord God : and to speak of all thy works in the gates of the daughter of Sion.

1662 BCP/Coverdale

Beowulf and the interweaving of secular and sacred

Full disclosure: While this post does represent something that’s been on my mind, I’ve chosen this particular topic tonight to encourage you to sign up for my course with Davenant Hall, The Church in Medieval England! Registration closes on Thursday, March 24.

I recently read Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf. (1) I’d been planning on reading it since the summer, but some medieval Arthuriana and my reading load for teaching prevented me until now. Beowulf is greatly enjoyable — monsters, adventure, sword-wielding swimming contests, and only 3182 lines versus The Odyssey with 12,109 lines. (2) Beowulf was my second epic (the Odyssey my first), and my second piece of long-form medieval literature (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, trans. Tolkien, when I was 13). It has stuck with me these many years, appealing for all the reasons ancient and medieval epic and romance stay with me — poetic artistry, a good story, some wise utterances.

One of the many reasons Beowulf continues to resonate with me is a characteristic that is eminently medieval, although it is an impulse the Greeks, Romans, and Mesopotamians also demonstrate, albeit differently. The poem is itself deeply religious, deeply Christian, but the characters are pagans. While I concede that around the time Beowulf was composed, there was some concept of the “secular”, (3) there is very little in art of this period that would look such to us today.

Beowulf is interesting in this regard because, as I say, it is a deeply Christian poem. Yet none of the characters of the poem are Christians. They are all pagans, and explicitly acknowledged as such; there is not even an attempt by the Beowulf poet to imagine them as “noble pagans” who are Christians before Christ who maybe make the cut on Judgement Day (or Doomsday to be more OE).

That said, the frequency of mentions of God in Christian terms renders the tone of the poem pius in a properly Christian sense. Pietas here means rendering the proper respect and honour and duty to those around you and above you. In a Christian sense, it includes worship of and obedience to God, as well as honouring your human father and mother. It is also often seen to include fulfilling obligations for the political community, something that obviously becomes culturally conditioned depending on your context. In Beowulf, this last means kings giving gifts to thegns (a good king is a ring-giver) as well as helping your friends and harming your foes (in a Homeric rendering of accounts). Harming your foes is not exactly Christian, but it is unclear to me whether the feuds of Beowulf are approved by the poet or simply recorded, whereas aiding friends and giving gifts are both approved of.

The pagan cast of the epic, however, has misguided pietas towards the false gods of ancient Germanic religion, and the poet makes this clear, interweaving his own Christian commentary on the pre-Christian tale. Several times, the poet draws the reader out of pagan glories to the final judgement, lamenting the deaths of the unbaptised pagan heroes of the past.

However, throughout, there is also an almost unconscious pietas, a sort of natural law (to misapply the term) in Beowulf himself. Here I confess that I am borrowing from Tolkien, “The Monsters and the Critics.” In the poem, as Tolkien observes, Beowulf goes from trusting solely in the gift of God in the fight with Grendel, to trusting in weapons, armour, shield, in the fight with the dragon. Beowulf consciously chooses to trust in God for the outcome of the fight with Grendel, not in the weaponry or art of war devised by men:

… And may the Divine Lord
in His wisdom grant the glory of victory
to whichever side He sees fit.

trans. Seamus Heaney, lines 685-687.

Beowulf meets Grendel in the night, grapples with him, and rips his arm off. Grendel will bleed to death as a result.

The second monster is Grendel’s mother, whom Beowulf confronts with weapons. His first sword, Hrunting, fails him, and he almost loses this fight, needing the aid of a magic sword to gain the victory.

The third monster is the dragon. This time, Beowulf wins but dies in the process, slain by the dragon he and his thegn Wiglaf slay together. The poet says of him as he goes off to the fight:

The fabled warrior in his warshirt and helmet
trusted in his own strength entirely
and went under the crag. No coward path!

trans. Seamus Heaney, lines 2539-2541.

Whereas with Grendel, Beowulf trusted in God to guide the outcome, here, with his weapons, he trusts in himself. He defeats the dragon, but the cost is his own life. The theme drawn through these episodes is that of Psalm 20:7, “Some trust in chariots, and some in horses: but we will remember the name of the LORD our God.” The less Beowulf trusts in God, the more dire becomes his own individual situation.

Yet there is also a high regard for Beowulf as a king saving his people, as a faint image of Christ. Beowulf sets out with twelve companions, his own apostles. And he is abandoned at his moment of keenest need save by one, Wiglaf, just as Christ was abandoned by all the (male) disciples save by St John the Evangelist. Like Christ, his death saves his people. To kill the dragon, the king dies; and in biblical imagery, the dragon represents the devil, defeated by Christ on the Rood.

In these and many other ways, Beowulf is a deeply Christian poem. The poet is not setting out to be “authentic” about these pagan characters. To his own self and his own religion he remains true. Yet his vision of their lives is capable of seeing the swift, sure hand of Almighty God at work.

This intertwining of pagan and Christian, or in other circumstances secular and sacred, is one of the things I love about the Middle Ages. So much of it has these layered readings and meanings and beautiful takes, just waiting to be fleshed out, or even enfleshed. It means that you can’t separate a study of medieval England (or a course!) into “secular” and “sacred” in any easy way.

If you want to engage with this beautiful medieval world more, do sign up for my course!

(1) This was round 4, first was R M Liuzza in high school, then Kevin Crossley-Holland in my 20s, then Tolkien around age 30; I hope that Round 5 will be in OE.

(2) At this point in my life, I have read a lot of ancient and medieval narrative literature, some of which I will definitely spend my life rereading.

(3) For the early medieval secular, see the special issue of Early Medieval Europe from last February.

Beauty

Winchester Cathedral – not my dad’s old parish!

Recently, we have been worshipping at the parish where my dad was priest in my teenage years. Various thoughts have assaulted me, and I thought I’d share two of them. First, the experience of worshipping surrounded by beauty, second, getting plugged back into the liturgical tradition of Anglicanism after years of exile …

In the January 31 episode of the Ad Fontes podcast, Onsi, Colin, and Rhys discussed beauty. You can listen to it here. Beauty is not, ultimately, necessary. Beauty is not a transcendental. And most churches today avoid spending extra money to be beautiful, echoing Judas Iscariot — could this money not be spent on the poor? Nonetheless, most Christians admit that beauty in worship and worship spaces is desirable, if oftentimes financially unattainable.

One point that was made was that no one has been wholesale converted through beauty. Sure, Malcolm Guite’s atheism was cracked by John Keats while visiting Keats House in Rome — but Guite was raised by Christian parents and no doubt had so much Gospel hidden in his heart that it was this that brought him to the living Word behind the words of Keats. Rod Dreher was converted from atheism to Rome by Chartres Cathedral. Yet, once again — he will have needed the ecclesial community of the Roman Catholic Church and the teaching of the church to make a full conversion, I imagine.

Those are the two counterexamples I know, but they nonetheless highlight to us the importance beauty of our experience of God. God has created a beautiful cosmos and is Himself simultaneously everywhere within this cosmos, ordering it aright and thus accessible through its beauty, and beyond it by far. And he, the creator God, has created us in his image. In Tolkien’s vocabulary, we are subcreators.

Making beautiful things is what we do. It’s part of living for God’s glory, showing Him His glory, and living out our existence as beings shot through with His glory.

Now, back to church the Sunday before that podcast episode dropped.

My three-year-old son is irrepressible. He cannot be stopped. Throughout the entire church service, he sat on my knee, rarely taking a break from talking, with a pause to have a snack and many attempts from me to keep the volume down.

At one point, this unstoppable force looked across the aisle from us to the many stained-glass windows flanking the nave and said, “Is that Jesus?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Why?” he asked.

“To remind us that Jesus came to rescue us.”

“Why can’t we see through the window?” (This query was repeated later.)

“By making a window out of stained glass, we can see the picture of Jesus but still have the daylight filling the room. The light shining through the window reminds us that Jesus is the light of world, sort of like what Abbot Suger of St-Denis says.”

I don’t expect my sons to get the references to people like Abbot Suger. But I think it’s worth sprinkling conversation with these references to point them to big world of knowledge that awaits.

A while later, he looked to the front.

“Is that Jesus, too?” he queried.

“Yes, that’s Jesus, too,” I answered.

One of the windows on the walls of the apse portrays Jesus and the little children.

I think it’s great that my wee men go to church and hear hymns, hear sermons, hear prayers, hear the Scriptures read. I have no doubt it is good for their spirits to have these come to them. And I know that they don’t just wash over them. The four-and-a-half-year-old is particularly good at remembering tiny references we thought he wasn’t listening to. He is our listener, our watcher, our observer, taking it all in and synthesising the world into knowledge.

Nonetheless, I also love that we can go to this place of beauty where the light shines through, where Jesus shines down on us (most of the windows are of the Lord, in fact), and we ourselves are drawn by the beauty into His true, eternal Beauty, whether we are three or thirty-eight.

I just finished teaching my students about iconoclasm, and there’s something of St John of Damascus in all of this, about participating in Christ through encountering His image, not to mention my reference to Pseudo-Dionysius via Suger of St-Denis (Denis = French for Dionysius). We can meet with Jesus with the help of these images, seeing His beauty made manifest for us in the stained glass.

Maybe the expense is worth it?

The Act of Supremacy: Beyond Henry VIII’s Divorce

My latest YouTube video is now up. It’s a discussion of the medieval trajectory leading up to Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy in 1534. Mostly it’s about Constantine, Charlemagne, the Investiture Controversy (and thus Lanfranc, Anselm, William the Bastard, William Rufus, Thomas Becket, Leo IX, Gregory VII, King John, Innocent III), papal placements in prebends (and St Bernard and Robert Grosseteste), and King Edward III.

It’s meant as a taster of some things you can pick up in my Davenant Hall course, “The Church in Medieval England.” Enjoy!

The only book I referenced was John Guy, Thomas Becket.

However, consider also these modern books for a wider continental context:

Uta-Renate Blumenthal, The Investiture Controversy.
Rosamond McKitterick, Charlemagne. This includes a whole chapter about the concept of correctio.

This collection of medieval sources includes Edward III: Four Gothic Kings, ed. Elizabeth Hallam.

And this medieval text is wonderful: Eadmer, Life of St Anselm of Canterbury.