Watch “King Arthur, Symbol, and the Christian Embrace of Narrative Fiction” on YouTube

My latest offering on YouTube is about Arthurian literature and how it represents an embrace of narrative fiction by Christians, with a discussion of symbol and a sacramental worldview that includes a digression about The Lord of the Rings.

Reflection from Trinity Sunday

Almost a week late, but here’s the reflection I put together for my worshipping community, Thunder Bay’s Urban Abbey, last Sunday.

Once I mentioned to a friend that Evagrius Ponticus, the fourth-century monastic mystic of Egypt, said that contemplation of the Trinity was the goal of Christian contemplation. She said she could never understand the Trinity, how three people can be one. Many people express similar thoughts, expressing hesitation and weakness or awkwardness in the face of talking about this doctrine. On behalf of theological educators everywhere, I would like to apologise for this. Speaking about the Trinity is really easy to do without falling into heresy, actually.

And you’re never going to comprehend how three Persons can also be or share a single Essence.

There are two places old-school theologians liked to begin in talking about the Trinity: the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ or the incomprehensibility of God. Let’s begin with the second one today. Very briefly: One of the reasons why we cannot fully understand how three Persons are a single God is that God as God is ultimately incomprehensible. We cannot grasp or understand or comprehend Who God is according to God’s own nature.

God is not a being among beings. God simply is. God is being itself. God is not a thing or an object within the universe. God created all the things and objects—the universe itself. God is utterly, ultimately beyond anything and everything that we know through daily experience. This is actually a Good Thing—it means that God makes God’sselves (God’s self? Theirselves?) known to us when it is needful for us, for God is not limited by the material or even spiritual creation. Thus, the doctrine of transcendence (God is beyond everything) guarantees the lived experience of immanence (God is in everything). In God we live and move and have our being, as St Paul said in Athens.

Rest calmly, then, knowing that your inability to comprehend the Trinity is neither a fault in yourself nor in the doctrine but part of the reality that comes with knowing God. Embrace the mystery, joining with the twelfth-century Cistercian Willliam of St-Thierry:

when I fix my inward gaze full upon him to whom I turn for light, to whom I offer worship or entreaty: it is God as Trinity who comes to meet me, a truth which the Catholic faith, bred in my bones, instilled by practice, commended by yourself and by your teachers, presents to me. But my soul, which must always visualize, perceives this given truth in such a way that it foolishly fancies number to reside in the simple being of the Godhead, which is beyond all number, and which itself made all that is by number and measure and weight. In this way it allots to each Person of the Trinity as it were his individual place and, praying to the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit, pictures itself as passing from the one to the other through the third. And thus the mind, baffled by the one, is diffracted among the three, as though there were three bodies that must be differentiated or united.

trans. P. Matarasso, The Cisercian World, p. 113

Can we say nothing, then? Are humans so inadequate that we can say nothing true about the one, true, and living God? How can we articulate any doctrine, let alone the Trinity, in light of the glorious beauty of the transcendent God? I assure you—monks and mystics throughout history have felt this. But they have also realised that God has made God’s Self known to us through creation, through acting in human history, and through the writings of sacred Scripture. God is transcendent, not aloof. God has communicated with us through these ways because God loves us more than we can ask or imagine.

Many passages in the New Testament demonstrate to us that Jesus, the God Word incarnate, is fully God. I’ll give just one example: John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” And Jesus’ words testify to the fact that there is a Divine Person named the Father—and that Jesus and the Father are one. Not only that, but if you’ve seen Jesus, you’ve seen the Father. Finally, in numerous instances throughout St Paul’s letters as well as statements made by Jesus, such as the Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, there is also a third Person Who is God, the Holy Spirit.

Nonetheless, throughout both Old and New Testaments it is clear that there is only one God who does not share His glory with another.

As the ancient church meditated on this, they found ways of expressing this threefold oneness that are faithful to Scripture, developing the language of the Trinity. There are three persons in one God. The Father is not the Son or the Holy Spirit; the Son is not the Father or the Holy Spirit; the Holy Spirit is not the Father or the Son. But there are not three Gods, only one God. The Father almighty, the Son almighty, the Holy Spirit almighty; but there are not three almighties, only one almighty.

Anything you can say about God—immortal, invisible, wise—you can say about any of the three Persons of the Trinity. They are united in complete, utter, and perfect love, being as they are a single substance or essence. How? I don’t know. But God is the truest, most perfect love there is. In fact, that is an important element of Trinitarian theology: God is love, and love implies a beloved. Therefore, God exists in all eternity as the Holy Three, filling each other with utterly perfect self-giving love.

God-as-Trinity is love. God-as-Trinity is Creator, as well. Of Their own free will, perfectly united in essence and love, God chose to create this world. And then God created us humans in God’s own Trinitarian image—not a true Trinity, but a likeness of it, similar in many respects. And then that image was damaged and marred by sin, death, and the devil. So the mighty God sent prophets, signs, and wonders, and then, out of the boundless love that is part of God’s very essence as Trinity, God Himself came down.

God Himself came down to save us.

Jesus the Christ is the God Word Who exists eternally in perfect, selfless love with the Father and the Holy Spirit. More than a carpenter. More than a good teacher. More than a prophet. And the sinless, pure, spotless, immortal God Who is love poured out His blood for us, rose again, and ascended.

So that you won’t be misled by what I’m about to say, remember this: God the Holy Trinity is perfect and infinite according to nature and essence. God doesn’t need us.

But God loves us.

Therefore, God invites us into a taste of that Trinitarian life, as we read about in John 14. We are baptised into that Trinitarian life, according to Matthew 28. And we are called to bring others into that life of boundless, endless, self-giving love, to participate, abide in the power, glory, and goodness of God Who Is Trinity. (But none of us can become a member of the Trinity; God does not need us, remember. God loves us and wants us to know Him.)

And in making disciples of Jesus the Christ, we begin also to reconcile ourselves to one another, for Jesus prays for us to be one as He and the Father are one. We are called to imperfectly mirror that Trinitarian reality as the church, where we live in selfless love for one another, acting together in God’s mission in the world, just as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were active together in creation.

This Trinity Sunday, let us pray for our unity as a community, for the unity of all Christian people, and, most importantly, fall down (literally or figuratively) in worship before a God Whom we can never fully understand but Who loves us so much He chose to die for us. Worship the Trinity. Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.

Pentecost and the Allegory of the Holy Grail

Enjoy my latest offering on YouTube wherein I talk about the allegorical meaning of the Quest for the Holy Grail, referencing Malcolm Guite, Pauline Matarasso’s translation of The Quest for the Holy Grail and its introduction (and thereby Etienne Gilson and Myrrha Lot-Boroodine), St Bernard, and William of St-Thierry. And the Canon of the Mass in the Use According to Sarum. It’s a good time, I promise!

God is not a thing — but is he a res?

St Augustine, by Philippe de Champaigne.

A few weeks ago I had the delightful opportunity of teaching my excellent group of students at Davenant Hall De Doctrina Christiana by St Augustine, or On Christian Teaching. In De Doctrina, St Augustine deals with the important question of language (for how can we read and interpret Scripture without thinking about what it actually is?). His basic approach to language is that it is part of the wider universe of signs, or signa, all of which point to things, or res. Some signa are natural, like smoke being the signum for the res that is a fire. Others are human conventions, such as language. All signa are res, but not all res are signa. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Language is made up of oral signa that disappear as soon as they come into existence. To represent these oral signa, we have invented writing, itself a further system of signa that represent the res that are the signa of spoken words.

Augustine then goes into a discussion of how all res can either be enjoyed (frui) or used (uti). Ultimately, in Augustine’s view, God is the only res that we are to enjoy. All other res exist for the purpose of being used to help us enjoy God more. At a certain level, all res may even be seen as signa that point us to God, depending on how you look at it.

And the ultimate signum that shows us the way to God is the incarnate God Himself, the perfect signum for the res that God is.

But wait —

Is God a thing?

One of my students expressed his surprise at Augustine having included God amongst the res. This student even has a copy of a book called God Is No Thing, after all. As people who think that Thomas Aquinas is the height of theological awesomeness like to point out, God is not even a being. God is being itself (FYI: St Augustine agrees, see De Trin 5) — ipsum esse.

Not being deep into scholasticism, I won’t judge the accuracy of that.

God is not a thing inasmuch as God is not a being among beings. God is not an object among objects. God, then, is not a thing among things.

However, for St Augustine’s argument about signa and how they work, God is a res — he is the signified of a signifier. Or is the signified of a signifier actually our own false mental image of God, and Godinhimself is something more distant?

Augustine feels this, and we’ll leave this post here confronting the vast mystery of the divine:

Have I spoken of God, or uttered His praise, in any worthy way?  Nay, I feel that I have done nothing more than desire to speak; and if I have said anything, it is not what I desired to say.  How do I know this, except from the fact that God is unspeakable?  But what I have said, if it had been unspeakable, could not have been spoken.  And so God is not even to be called “unspeakable,” because to say even this is to speak of Him.  Thus there arises a curious contradiction of words, because if the unspeakable is what cannot be spoken of, it is not unspeakable if it can be called unspeakable.  And this opposition of words is rather to be avoided by silence than to be explained away by speech.  And yet God, although nothing worthy of His greatness can be said of Him, has condescended to accept the worship of men’s mouths, and has desired us through the medium of our own words to rejoice in His praise.  For on this principle it is that He is called Deus (God).  For the sound of those two syllables in itself conveys no true knowledge of His nature; but yet all who know the Latin tongue are led, when that sound reaches their ears, to think of a nature supreme in excellence and eternal in existence.

De Doctrina 1.6, NPNF2, vol. 2, p. 524

Palm Sunday reflection

This is a reflection I put together for my church, Urban Abbey, in Thunder Bay for this past Sunday.

Since ancient times, Palm Sunday has had two Gospel readings—a short reading for Christ’s entry into Jerusalem and then a long reading of a passion narrative, recounting Jesus’ betrayal, trial, and execution at the hands of sinners. The English word passion comes from the Latin passio, the word for suffering. This suffering and death, recounted to us in Mark 14:1-15:47 in today’s Gospel, is something that I have meditated on in these reflections the past few Sundays, pointing to Jesus, high and lifted up, glorious and dead, saving us, drawing us to the Father with whom he now reigns in glory.

A surface reading of this passage in Mark shows us a beaten man, dying unjustly under the thumb of an imperial power. Yet when we unite this with the events of Palm Sunday, something starts to peek out, as the crowd calls, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” (John 12:13, quoting Psalm 118:25, 26) and our Lord’s fulfillment of ancient prophecy, “Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!” (John 12:15, quoting Zechariah 9:9). On Palm Sunday we glimpse Jesus as the King of Israel, the Messiah, the anointed one of the God of Israel.

Philippians 2:5-11 brings out the deep meaning of Palm Sunday and Good Friday. This passage is thought to actually be an early Christian hymn incorporated by St Paul from the church’s worship into his letter. Here we read that although Jesus was “in the form of God” he chose to “take on the form of a slave”. Most modern English Bibles have “servant” here—the ESV unhelpfully gives us the antiquated word “bondservant” in the notes as an option for “servant”. The Greek is doulos. It means slave. It’s worth thinking on this mystery.

Jesus is fully God—completely and utterly God, as much God as the Father is God. Anything we can say about God we can say about the Christ: immortal, invisible, wise, almighty, eternal, omniscient, just, loving, merciful, compassionate, infinite. He is also fully man—that is the upshot of Philippians 2:7, that he has the “form of a slave” and was made “in the likeness of human beings.” God in His very Self knows precisely what it means to be the lowest of the low—there is no one in ancient society lower than the slave. A Roman slave was the legal property of another human being. It was part of the regular process of Roman law to simply torture slaves if they were witnesses at trials—not even if they were defendants. If a master was killed by a slave, the entire household of slaves was liable for the murder and put to death; they should have known better or done better to protect him. This is how far God chose to come down to be with us.

God knows everything about being human—he is not aloof.

For us to consider to how deep the love of God the Word for us is, the next verse brings us to the cross—”he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2:8) First, Christ our God took on the form of a slave, the lowest of human society. And then he did not merely suffer, he died. And he did not merely die, he died the death reserved for the lowest of the worst criminals. Romans crucified those they considered the scum of the earth, such as Spartacus and 6000 of his fellow slave rebels, the thieves and murderers on either side of Jesus, or 2000 Jews who rebelled against the Romans around the time when Jesus was born. It is a terrible way to die, as many Good Friday sermons enjoy describing for us.

Just as a reminder, here are of some of the divine attributes ancient Christians and Jews believed in and passed along to us—God is immortal. God cannot suffer. God is eternal. God is infinite. As Charles Wesley put it: “’Tis mystery all, the Immortal dies!”

What is the result in the divine plan of his action in human history, his taking on our flesh and dying as one of us? “That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil. 2:10-11) Because of the basic nature and order of the universe, humans and the rest of the creation are meant for loving and worshipping God; as has been said, our main purpose in life is “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” In falling away from the worship of God, we have fallen from our truest life, and therefore we have gone away from our truest joy and happiness and source of contentment.

Part of our salvation is for God’s glory because, when we give glory to God, we are living our best life now. This is what the Paradise we lost was and what the Paradise we shall regain is going to be. Following Jesus means going through suffering to glory. The grand narrative of the Bible is not simply creation to fall to redemption, but also from redemption to glory, to the new heaven and the new earth of the book of Revelation.

Let us now go back to Philippians 2:5. I quote my own translation, “Therefore, let that mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.” From here, St Paul describes the mind that was in Christ Jesus. Ethics and theology are intimately united in the Bible. The ethics that flow from the theology that I have just described, the way of living that we disciples (or better, apprentices) are called to follow by our master and teacher, is given in Philippians 2:6-11. We are called not to grasp for power and authority but to pour out our whole selves in love for others. We are called to humble ourselves and deny ourselves daily. To take up our cross and follow Him—Jesus the Messiah, God the Son, Saviour, Lord, Prophet, Priest, King. His mind is a mind filled with loving humility, with humble love.

Humility, of course, is a strong biblical virtue, and through the centuries, disciples of Jesus have had much to say on the subject. Since we at the Urban Abbey follow a version of the Rule of the seventh-century Irish abbot St Columbanus, I thought I would commend some of his words to you this Palm Sunday:

if … we first hasten by the exercise of true humility to heal the poisons of pride and envy and vain glory, through the teaching of our Saviour Who says for our example, “Learn of Me for I am meek and lowly of heart’’ (Matt. 11. 29), and so on, then let us all, made perfect with no further blemish, with hatred rooted out, as the disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ, love one another’ (cf. John 13. 35) with our whole heart. (Letter II.4)

The only pathway to humility, as with all virtue, is grace. St Columbanus reminds us of God’s grace in his third sermon, where he urges those pursuing eternal life to

call on God’s grace to help [your] striving; for it is impossible for anyone to acquire by his own efforts alone what he lost in Adam. (Sermon III.2)

In closing, here is the prayer of the day (called a “collect”) for Palm Sunday from the Book of Common Prayer, bringing together many of these themes:

ALMIGHTY and everlasting God, who, of thy tender love towards mankind, hast sent thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ, to take upon him our flesh, and to suffer death upon the cross, that all mankind should follow the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant, that we may both follow the example of his patience, and also be made partakers of his resurrection; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Crucifixion, Studenica, Serbia. 1310s.

The Annunciation

As we journey to the Cross, suddenly, the turning of the calendar and rolling of the year brings us face to face with the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Angel Gabriel – today is nine months until Christmas. It is the feast of the Annunciation, when we celebrate God’s self-giving love, as it was poured out in the conception of Christ and culminated in his saving death and glorious resurrection. From ancient times, Christians have seen the willing obedience of Mary as a grace-filled opposite to the disobedience of Eve and the obedience of Christ as the opposite of the disobedience to Adam. Here’s a hymn by St Hildegard of Bingen, a twelfth-century German abbess and mystic, the antiphon “Quia ergo femina”:

Because a woman brought death
a bright Maiden overcame it,
and so the highest blessing
in all of creation
lies in the form of a woman,
since God has become human
in a sweet and blessed Virgin.

-Trans. Mark Atherton, Hildegard of Bingen: Selected Writings

Here is a recording of the original Latin:

Praying and praising in all circumstances

Most of us are having a hard time keeping our spirits up as we deal with government restrictions in light of this pandemic. Whatever we’re going through, I am not sure it is worse than being captured by pirates and sold into slavery, though. And that’s what happened to St Patrick. About his time as a slave, Patrick writes:

After I arrived in Ireland, I tended sheep every day, and I prayed frequently during the day. More and more the love of God increased, and my sense of awe before God. Faith grew, and my spirit was moved, so that in one day I would pray up to one hundred times, and at night perhaps the same. I even remained in the woods and on the mountain, and I would rise to pray before dawn in snow and ice and rain. I never felt the worse for it, and I never felt lazy – as I realise now, the spirit was burning in me at that time.

Confessio 16

Perhaps what we’re missing is more prayer?

Reflections for Lent 4

Here is my reflection for the Urban Abbey, Thunder Bay, from yesterday’s lectionary readings. All passages quoted from the ESV.

Today’s reading from Numbers 21:4-9 tells the story of how, when the Israelites were disobedient and grumbling against God and Moses, serpents were sent amongst them as punishment. Moses made a bronze serpent and placed it on a pole. Whoever looked up and saw the serpent would live. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus makes an explicit parallel between the bronze serpent and himself, saying, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15) Sometimes we imagine Jesus “lifted up” as a reference to his reigning in glory with the Father, as mentioned in today’s epistle reading, Ephesians 2:6, where St Paul says that God “raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”

But in John 3, Jesus is speaking of his own death on the cross. We must look to the cross to be saved, just as the Israelites looked to the serpent to be saved. The people of Israel, as the book of Numbers tells us, were dying—in fact, many of them had died by the time Moses made the bronze serpent. They were dying from their own disobedience. But God, in his boundless mercy, also provided them a way out. All they needed to do was trust in him and look to the bronze serpent.

As we read in today’s Ephesians reading, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked.” (Ephesians 2:1) But God did not leave us in our spiritual death. In his mercy, by his grace, he “made us alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:5). We simply need faith; that is to say, all we need to do is trust in God and look to the cross. As we read later in the Ephesians passage, it is faith, not works, that enables us to grasp hold of the famous, wonderful promise of John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” No matter how morally upright we are, no matter how many “charitable deeds” we perform, no matter how righteously we spend our money, no matter how much we pray, none of this will be what saves us and places us in a right relationship with God. It entirely by God’s grace that we are saved.

Many today will essentially stop there. We are saved by grace through faith, as Ephesians 2:8 teaches us. By “saved”, we usually mean “justified”—that we are saved from the penalty of sin and that we are enabled to enter into a right relationship with God. This is a truth, and a beautiful truth, and worth meditating on. But I think St Paul has a bigger vision of salvation, and so does St John, let alone Jesus himself. In John 3, Jesus is teaching Nicodemus about the Kingdom of God and how we enter that kingdom through being born again, being born of the Spirit. We enter that kingdom by looking to Christ on the cross, high and lifted up, like that bronze snake in Exodus. And if we start thinking in terms of the Kingdom of God, we start to consider not simply what we are saved from, but what we are saved for.

God’s grace not only snatches us from the fire or, like the string on a tea bag, from the hot water we get ourselves into. It also brings us back to life and empowers us to do good works—St Paul follows his teaching on being saved by grace through faith by immediately saying, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10) We are citizens of God’s Kingdom, and are meant to live accordingly. But we are not left alone to struggle in the quest for holiness; that would be mere moralism. No, we are given God’s grace to help us live this way. The saved life is the life that grows over time into greater holiness, living according to God’s kingdom, all empowered by God’s grace.

With God all things are possible, as Jesus teaches us in Matthew 19:26. By faith we take hold of the promises of God. His grace comes to us wherever we are, washes us in the blood of Jesus, brings us into a relationship with God (which is how Jesus describes eternal life in John 17:3: knowing God the Holy Trinity). The pathway of Christian discipleship is not looking to the cross and then doing as we please. It is not living morally on our own strength. It is looking the cross and keeping it ever before us—lifted up—and trusting in the power of God to work within us so that we can do those good works that God has already prepared for us.

There is, really, one truly appropriate response to this, and it is to praise God! As our Psalm for today says, “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures for ever!” (Psalm 107:1) Allow me to close this reflection with some words from St Patrick, the fifth-century missionary to Ireland whose feast we celebrate this coming Wednesday. St Patrick was relatively uneducated and went from slave to missionary by the grace of God, bringing many of the Irish to faith in Jesus Christ, which was the good work God had prepared for him (as Patrick himself says). In his Confession, we read:

I do not know how to provide for the future. But this I know for certain, that before I was brought low, I was like a stone lying deep in the mud. Then he who is powerful came and in his mercy pulled me out, and lifted me up and placed me on the very top of the wall (Psalm 69:15). That is why I must shout aloud in return to the Lord for such great good deeds of his, here and now and forever, which the human mind cannot measure.

A quick thought for St Gregory the Great

The top of St Gregory’s crozier

One of the blessings of the  saints’ feasts is how they turn our hearts to the faithfulness of God. Today we commemorate St Gregory the Great, who was pope from 590 to 604. Gregory’s great desire in life was to be a monk; to still alone in stillness and contemplate the greatness of God. Instead, he was called from the monastic life to be bishop of Rome. The fruit of St Gregory’s contemplation is visible in his written works, from Bible commentaries to a life of St Benedict. But it is perhaps most visible in . . . ourselves. In 597, St Gregory sent the abbot of his Roman monastery with twelve companions to convert the pagan, barbarian English people. This was the beginning of the conversion of the English people, thanks to the grace of God in the life of a man who would rather have been faithful in some other way.

I, a descendant of those English barbarians, had the opportunity to encounter what may have been St Gregory’s shepherd’s crook (art historians say it isn’t). In thankfulness to God for this man’s faithfulness, I kissed it alongside the monks who live in his old monastery today.

God will be faithful to our own spiritual lives, as he was to Gregory, even if our only challenge is making it to Easter without chocolate.