Trinity and mysticism in East and West

There is a famous statement by Pope St John Paul II (or JP2 to his homeys) that the Church must start to breathe with both her lungs once again — that is, East and West. I don’t know the original context of the statement, but it seems to emerge in discussions about the more ‘rational’ approach to the faith in the western tradition and the more ‘mystical’ approach in eastern Christianity. A false dichotomy, to be sure.

Nonetheless, as the chapter about St John of the Cross in Andrew Louth’s The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition shows, there are differences in the approach to mysticism found in East and West. Someone such as Vladimir Lossky would probably boil it down to the differences in our approach to the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity.

This may be part of it.

The problem with Lossky, however, is that the opening chapter of The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church raises a sharp irreconcilability between the two traditions. He argues that our view of the Trinity is, in fact, false — but does so through a misreading of St Thomas Aquinas and thus the whole of western Trinitarian thought.

And here lies my main thought.

Setting aside for the moment the vexed issue of the procession of the Holy Spirit, I think that we need each when we think about the Trinity, precisely because we are in certain respects different. Our foundation is, however, the same. As St Anselm writes:

Latins call these three things persons, Greeks substances. For as we Latins call the one substance in God three persons, so the Greeks call the one person three substances, they meaning here by substance the very same thing that we mean by person, and not differing from us in faith in any way. (On the Incarnation, ch. 16)

Yet if you read Latin Trinitarian theology, we often start with the unity of God — thus Anselm’s Monologion and Proslogion. Greek theology, on the other hand, often starts with the three Persons — thus St Gregory of Nyssa’s That There Are Not Three Gods. Lossky argues that our insistence on the divine unity posits a fourth hypostasis in the Trinity, a fourth thing that is the ground of being of the three Persons. However, and I forget the title of the book that brought this home to me (it was about Aquinas and Bonaventure’s triadology), what we really mean by that unity is all three persons at once. The unity is a conceptual articulation, not a substance of its own.

Rather than arguing us vs them in Trinitarian theology, East-West dialogue should FIRST acknowledge the incomprehensible and unapproachable mystery here. And then we should see what nuances we can gain from each other. And then, perhaps, we can start to breathe with both our lungs.

And as we breathe with both of these lungs, we will be reminded that the Trinity, the persons beyond personality who are a single God yet three persons, is bigger than any of our doctrinal statements (no matter how true those statements are). And so we will seek Him out in prayer and contemplation, questing after the Uncreated Light, the Beatific Vision, the grace of a meeting with God that is theosis.

But as long as we begin in a position of hostility, our ability to love each other will be hampered. And if we cannot love our brethren whom we can see, how can we love God whom we cannot see?

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Faith and the arts

Pinturicchio fresco in Santa Maria in Ara Coeli, Rome (my photo)

At the start of this new year, my friend Talita from high school put on her debut concert as a singer-songwriter, livestreamed over Facebook (Thunder Bay, Ontario, is far from Durham, England) from the Urban Abbey. It was the story of her journey as a musician, and a good number of friends from high school as well as her dad and sisters made appearances on the platform, performing alongside her, including Ryan Marchand who is actually a rock star.

It was a wonderful event, and there was a strong element of Talita’s faith in the midst of the theme of her emergence as an artist. Many of the beautiful songs, including her own compositions, were songs of the Christian faith, reflecting the beautiful truths of our beautiful God. It was great to watch this event. And I am so glad that the Urban Abbey provides a space for artists — performers and others — to ply their trade.

But few churches and Christian communities really do. It’s probably seen by some as a hipster sort of move. Historically, however, churches have not needed to sponsor the arts so consciously as this — it was natural. Notker ‘the Stammerer’ was not Sankt Gall’s Artist in Residence (and certainly not a hipster), but he wrote them beautiful poetry. The mosaicists of Palermo were simply plying their trade. The anonymous liturgists of the Gelasian Sacramentary did not need to make special pleading in the church.

But today, spaces like the Urban Abbey can be rarely found.

In Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians, one piece of wisdom Chris R. Armstrong imparts is for evangelicals to get into art more — that the Incarnation makes Christian art important. God Himself became His creation. All creatures matter. Not only this — and this is not from Armstrong but is Tolkien language also expressed by Sayers in The Mind of the Maker — but we are made in the image of God, and one of the foundational properties of theism is that Our God is Creator. We then, are sub-creators in some way.

Turning back to Armstrong, evangelicals have not always made good art. Think of the King of the Hill line about how Christian rock doesn’t make Christianity better but rock’n’roll worse. Armstrong mentions Richard Wilkinson’s study of English literature 1860-1960 that found the only orthodox Protestants producing high literary art worth mentioning in that century were C. S. Lewis and T. S. Eliot, both sacramental Anglicans. I don’t know how accurate that is, but it’s worth thinking about.

How can we make great art and beauty a natural part of evangelical faith?

The Gospel — the evangel of evangelical — is the most beautiful true thing in the world. The God who dies. The myth that is real. The cosmic-rending reality of Incarnation. The piercing of the Virgin’s Mary’s soul. There is high drama here. It is worthy of great art, and great art has been made about Christianity forever.

People of faith have always made art, often of a very high degree of skill and beauty. Just think on the Parthenon and temples of the Acropolis, the Pantheon of Rome, the tales told of the cult statue of Zeus at Olympia, or consider the Dome of the Rock, the Great Mosque of Damascus, the calligraphy on the exteriors of so many mosques. Think of the Homeric Hymns, the Poetic Edda, the Rg Veda. Greek tragedy and comedy began as part of a religious festival.

Christianity, in its worship of the Triune God, has given us the beautiful prose of the Book of Common Prayer, the verse of Gregory of Nazianzus and Prudentius and Ambrose, the glories of Byzantine and Renaissance liturgy, the fine intricacies of ars anglicana embroidery, the hymns of Charles Wesley, of Romanos the Melodist, of Ephrem the Syrian, of Isaac Watts, of Notker the Stammerer, of J. M. Neale, as well as the architecture of liturgy — Hagia Sophia, St Peter’s, Notre Dame, Chartres Cathedral, the mosaics of Santa Prassede, of Palermo, of Hagia Sophia, of San Marco in Venice.

Beyond the formal worship event, Christianity has given us so much (and so much more than the following): The Dream of the Rood, Dante (!!), The Quest for the Holy Grail, Fra Angelico,  Mozart’s Mass in C Minor and Requiem, William Byrd, countless mosaics and frescoes throughout the Mediterranean world, the Christian Latin epics of Late Antiquity, Evelyn Waugh, Flannery O’Connor, J. R. R. Tolkien, and so many more without delving into Protestantism.

For the churches descended from the Reformation have their own rich heritage in the arts. St Paul’s Cathedral, John Donne, George Herbert, Lancelot Andrewes, the prose of the 1611 KJV Bible, Sir John Davies, Henry Purcell, Thomas Tallis (who was also Roman Catholic — he lived in interesting times), J. S. Bach, C. S. Lewis, Malcolm Guite, and undoubtedly so many others who escape me just now.

Let us drink deep from the beauty of the beautiful God, and we shall produce beauty ourselves.

Mother Teresa on Silence

Following from yesterday’s post about silence in the Rule of St Benedict:

“In the silence of the heart God speaks. If you face God in prayer and silence, God will speak to you. Then you will know that you are nothing. It is only when you realize your nothingness, your emptiness, that God can fill you with Himself. Souls of prayer are souls of great silence.”
― Mother TeresaIn the Heart of the World: Thoughts, Stories and Prayers

Into Great Silence

I recently re-watched Philip Gröning’s film Die Grosse Stille, or in English Into Great Silence. This film is an immersive experience and possibly one of the better ways to bring people into the world of Christian monasticism and the contemplative tradition.

When I first watched it, I watched it over more than one sitting. Although this film is a bit long — 2 h 42 min — it is, I think, important to watch an immersive film such as this in a single sitting. Into Great Silence is about the monks of La Grande Chartreuse in the French Alps. This is the mother house of the Carthusian order. Carthusians do not talk to each other. They sing the office and chant the readings. The few times they eat together in refectory, a brother reads to them, and they keep silent as they eat.

The first non-singing human voice in the film is the monk who takes care of the cats, about 20 min in.

The sounds you hear in the great silence are footsteps in the cloisters. Feet treading up stairs. The sound of a kneeler creaking beneath monastic weight. The rustle of white robes. Birdsong. Spoons in bowls of soup. Rain. The river. Scissors cutting fabric. The rasor shaving their heads. The food trolley rolling down the corridor. A shovel in the snow. You hear the bell ring and watch the monks kneel to pray wherever they are. You hear them shuffle in, taking turns at the chapel bell and arranging themselves in the choir. You hear them sing the night office in Latin.

There is no voice over. Just the great silence of the Carthusian life.

La Grande Chartreuse

The film covers about one year of life at La Grande Chartreuse. It begins and ends in winter, with shots of blizzards in the Alps. You see La Grande Chartreuse covered in snow. You see the majestic backdrop of the Alps surrounding it. You watch the spring melt-off. You see the rivers and streams swell. You see two young men make profession as novices. I found it interesting that the prior seemed to roll his R’s in French like an Italian (maybe he’s Italian). You see a monk sitting at his table in his hermitage reading. You see a monk preparing  celery. You watch the monks get their heads shaved.

It is a very simple life. They seek to live that monastic ideal ora et labora. They cut their own wood for their fireplaces; Carthusians live in little houses, each with its own garden. There are also larger, communal gardens. These all grow vegetables. They pray, they read, they prepare food, they take care of the cats, they take care of the cattle, they clean the monastery, they keep the spring water flowing to the charterhouse. They work. They pray. They sleep. They pray. They sleep. They pray. They work. Repeat.

There is a bit of modern plumbing, a few electric lights, electric rasors, and an IBM Thinkpad. But most of what they use looks mediaeval. You see a monk washing his dishes in his room with a jug and a bucket, and the water flows out a hole to the outdoors.

They do talk, though. Gröning edited the material very well — at the one communal meal in the film, the reading is from the constitutions of the Carthusians, talking about how they eat supper together on Sundays and solemn feasts, and that after the meal they have the chance for conversation, so that they can experience some of the joy of family life. They also get to go for a walk once a week because of how refreshing a walk in the forest is for frail humans after all the strictness of the Carthusian way of life.

What do they talk about? Whether they should maintain the tradition of handwashing, and if getting rid of the handwashing would be the start of a slippery slope into indiscipline.

They also go sliding in the winter. Their laughs are very highpitched.

In the end, this is a beautiful film of extraordinary power. I recommend it highly, whether you are into monks or not. For me, I really felt like this was a taste of the kind of spiritual tradition and spirituality that I could get into. Maybe never actually as a Carthusian, but this world of silence, calm, prayer, service, is enchanting.

Finally, if you get the collector’s edition, it has a second disc full of interesting information and slideshows about the making of the film and the history and spirituality of Carthusians.

Help your church survive the future by rediscovering the past

Chapter 5 of The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher is ‘A Church for All Seasons’. In this chapter, Dreher takes on the fact that not only is our culture around us shifting and changing and rejecting Christianity, but our churches are shrinking and have, frankly, something of a limp witness to the Triune God Who made all the things.

This chapter is in many ways perfectly in tune with the spirit of St Benedict’s Rule, and some of the recommendations are definitely from the Rule. Others, I think, are simply the way pre-modern Christians did things. I don’t think they are special to Benedict, and sometimes he wouldn’t even have thought there was a question about doing church this way.

The sub-headings are: ‘Rediscover the Past’, ‘Recover Liturgical Worship’, ‘Tighten Church Discipline’, ‘Evangelize with Goodness and Beauty’, ‘Embrace Exile and the Possibility of Martyrdom’. He doesn’t actually argue that any living American Christian is going to be martyred, but he does recommend preaching, teaching, and living the path of suffering in our churches rather than self-fulfillment.

I am broadly in agreement with all of this. It’s basically what this entire blog is about. By rooting ourselves in the Great Tradition, by seeking beauty and God wherever we can, by learning the history of theology, by singing old hymns and praying old prayers and engaging in ancient disciplines, we forge an identity that is connected to that of our forebears in the faith and radically different from the world around us.

Last week, a friend and I were talking about how we need to communicate historic Christian truth afresh to each generation. For the Roman Catholic to say, ‘Ah, we have St Thomas for that,’ simply isn’t enough. Yes, read St Thomas Aquinas. Get filled up with him. And then express him, urgently, beautifully, winsomely, in a way that will communicate the best of Scholastic theology for today’s Christian.

I admit to being the sort of person who thinks, ‘Well, the best book about the Council of Chalcedon is the translation of the acts by Richard Price and Michael Gaddis.’ I mean, it is — but what normal Christian is going to put up with three volumes of arguing bishops? Better even a 6-page pamphlet that someone will actually read and which gives Leo in a nutshell, Cyril in a nutshell, who Eutyches was, why Nestorianism was rejected, who dissented the results of the council and why as far as the life of the local church and normal human Christian is concerned.

Of course, of course, of course — we should challenge our brothers and sisters to read, if not conciliar acta, at least books like St Augustine’s City of God or an abridgement of St Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae or St Athanasius On the Incarnation or the Rule of St Benedict or Evagrius Ponticus’ Chapters on Prayer or Bellarmine/Luther/Lancelot Andrewes/Calvin (depending on your tradition).

But perhaps we academics should also help the local church get plugged into the Great Tradition, through book studies or lectures or our own writings or, I dunno, blogs?

Anyway, rooting ourselves in the tradition through beautiful worship and rich theology and the pursuit of holiness will help keep us moored in the midst of liquid modernity.

What’s an Augustinian ̶c̶a̶n̶o̶n̶ friar? Wasn’t Luther a ‘monk’? (revised)

St Augustine, by Philippe de Champaigne

So you’ve probably heard it said that Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk at some point in the last few days. Except from me! My own academic pedantry prevents it. And you may even have heard it from Luther himself, who seems at some point to have used the German equivalent of the word ‘monkery’ to refer his activities as a member of a religious order.

This is, of course, a matter of terminology, but precision in these matters can help us see the diversity within medieval Latin Christian religious life. Like the Dominicans and Franciscans, Martin Luther’s Augustinians are friars. I thought they were canons, but they weren’t. There are Augustinian canons, though, so we’ll get into them first.

As early as the Carolingian Renaissance/Reforms of the late 700s, there were two main visions of the consecrated, religious life in western Europe. One was that of monks —monachi in Latin — and the other was that of the canons — canonici. Monks live in monasteries or priories, closed off from the world. Their main duties, historically, are to pray and to engage in work that will keep them alive, like gardening, and, according to the Rule of Benedict, to read the Bible and meditate on it.

By the end of the Carolingian Reforms, the Rule of Benedict was the ascendant monastic rule of western Europe and England.

Canons, on the other hand, are a different kettle of fish.

Canons are clerics who live together in community but, like the secular clergy (those who do not live according to a rule), they have duties beyond their own community’s enclosures. They are meant to engage in acts of mercy, in preaching, and in public liturgy.

In the High Middle Ages, the ascendancy for canons was gained by the Rule of St Augustine. There are a few versions of this document, and they all seem to descend from two different things St Augustine of Hippo (d. 430) produced. For canons, then, the vita religiosa, the religious life, was ordered according a fairly brief set of rules, intentionally flexible to allow them to engage in their duties beyond their community’s enclosures. St Augustine developed his rule explicitly for priests to live in community together, so it makes sense that canons would adopt and adapt it for their local situations.

At some point, there emerged a religious order of Augustinians. Any Luther scholars out there can correct me if I’m wrong, but I imagine that he was a member of the order. You may think, ‘Was there no order of Augustinians in the 700s?’ No — there was not even an Order of St Benedict.

The first order as such was the Cistercians, although the Cluniacs experimented in widespread centralisation. An order means that all the members and member houses of a particular group of people living according to a rule have a central administration and are ordered by constitutions. There are monasteries, canonries, or friaries that watch over their sister and daughter houses, as well as administrators over regions who make sure that the different religious houses are not falling into various abuses. The heads of the major houses and regions will meet to deal with the business of the order at prescribed times. They are bound together in a mutual society of give-and-take, regulation, and, in theory, fraternal love.

In the eleventh century, there arose a number of movements for the reform of the religious life. These coalesced monastically in the Cistercians in the next century and, at a much higher pitch, the Carthusians who are technically hermits who live in community. The living paradox of the monastic ideal.

Various groups of canons were also being founded and organised during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, usually, even if they began with their own charismatic leaders, finding themselves under the Rule of St Augustine in the long run.

In the thirteenth century we see the rise of the friars. Friars are most associated with the Franciscans and Dominicans, two preaching orders committed to poverty, preaching, and cities. They are mendicant, which means that they are meant to beg for survival, and not live off rich benefices the way many medieval monasteries did.

During the rise of the friars, the hermits were also doing their thing in Italy, and were inspired to move into the cities to be able to pursue the contemplative life and to engage in acts of mercy. Those who were granted recognition by the papacy adopted the Rule of St Augustine, and they eventually coalesced and organised into a mendicant order of friars alongside the Franciscans and Dominicans.

Thus, by the middle of the 1200s, we have three major forms of ‘religious’ life in western Europe. We have the monks proper, the canons (usually Augustinians), and the friars. There were also, of course, hermits and anchorites, but just monks, canons, and friars will always be few, so hermits and anchorites will always be fewer. All of these groups sought to lead lives of poverty and chastity, of prayer and asceticism, pursuing holiness according their respective rules in community.

The problem that rears its head throughout the history of Christian asceticism is the idea that the asceticism or the penance is actually what saves you. This is the chief temptation of the rigorous righteous. Cassian fights it. Benedict fights it. Evagrius fights it. Augustine fights it. Again and again, monks, friars, and canons need to be reminded that they are not saved by their ‘monkery’, as Luther called it.

And I would argue that the time for reading set aside in the Rule of Benedict and the amount of study Augustinians like Luther did ought to have helped balance them out, for it is rich in the tradition of asceticism, this battle against trusting in the asceticism itself rather than God himself.

But, alas, it is too easy to trust our own works than simply rest in the grace of God, isn’t it?

(Not that I’m one of those, ‘Ah, those poor, benighted medieval papists and monks who needed Luther to rediscover the long-lost true Gospel for them!’ types.)

An unavoidable ‘Reformation 500’ post

Image courtesy of Mae

Happy 500th anniversary of the 95 Theses!

It’s been a bumpy 500 years, hasn’t it? I mean, all Brother Martin, Augustinian canon and university theology professor, wanted to do was exercise his academic freedom and hold a debate about the sale of indulgences.

And now, with the western church fragmented beyond all human hope of repair, all sorts of people claim him and his own reform movement of the 1500s as their own, including around 9000 different Protestant denominations. (If you enjoy revelling in the 33,000 number, read this article by a Roman Catholic that refutes it.) To some extent, there is a truth in this. Luther’s actions, and the hierarchy’s response to them, led to much bolder actions on his part and the part of others, snowballing over the years of his own lifetime into different calls for different levels and kinds of reform, from canon law to theology to moral action to church order to liturgy to all sorts of things. In a way, regardless of how much we Protestants (and, yes, Anglicans are a variety of Protestant; please don’t argue with me about that in the comments because it makes me tired) agree or disagree with the vast corpus of Luther’s writings, we are all — somehow — descended from his original movement of protest and call for reform.

I would like to state that I agree with the 95 Theses. Even if one were to subscribe to the doctrine of Purgatory (which I don’t; see Article of Religion 22), Luther gives some pretty cogent reasons for why they are conceptually flawed and theologically false to Scripture and tradition.

I also think, from what I’ve read, that I agree with him about justification. But, of course, what Luther taught may not be what your local Pentecostal pastor teaches. So watch out for that. Not to say that the Pentecostal is wrong, but rather that saying, ‘I believe in justification by faith,’ doesn’t suddenly mean you actually agree with everyone else who says the same.

For example, sometimes I think I agree with the Council of Trent (of all things):

The Synod furthermore declares, that in adults, the beginning of the said Justification is to be derived from the prevenient grace of God, through Jesus Christ, that is to say, from His vocation, whereby, without any merits existing on their parts, they are called; that so they, who by sins were alienated from God, may be disposed through His quickening and assisting grace, to convert themselves to their own justification, by freely assenting to and co-operating with that said grace: in such sort that, while God touches the heart of man by the illumination of the Holy Ghost, neither is man himself utterly without doing anything while he receives that inspiration, forasmuch as he is also able to reject it; yet is he not able, by his own free will, without the grace of God, to move himself unto justice in His sight. Whence, when it is said in the sacred writings: Turn ye to me, and I will turn to you, we are admonished of our liberty; and when we answer; Convert us, O Lord, to thee, and we shall be converted, we confess that we are prevented by the grace of God. (Session 6, Chapter 5; pp. 32-33 of trans. J. Waterworth)

That is to say: God justifies us by grace acting in us. Our will cooperates with God’s grace freely, yet it is acknowledged that we are unable to cooperate freely without the grace of God acting in us. The awkward reality of faith as lived out in real life rather than in pious slogans.

Nonetheless, there are various other things that go on in Trent with which I disagree, so I’ll not convert to Rome just yet, thankyouverymuch.

Anyway, from what I recall from my studies back in 2011, around the time of Luther the teaching of the Latin church on this question was not, at large, clear. So when Luther found himself pushing back and resisted in the matter of indulgences, he found himself investigating the whole theological, sacramental, and canonical system of the Latin church concerning how we are saved and how this relates to the Bible.

And so we come to another happy Reformation slogan: Sola scriptura. I, again, take an Anglican line on this, that the Scriptures contain everything that is necessary for salvation. This does not mean that they are not to be understood in light of tradition or that tradition has no place in a healthy Christian life. More on that another time.

It has been said (possibly by Scott Cairns?) that Luther, a true Augustinian not simply by his vows but in his theology, who was steeped not only in Augustine but the other fathers and the greatest of the scholastics (whether he came out liking them or not is a different story) was in a very different position to say sola scriptura than the uneducated man on the street who reads the Bible for himself with no context.

That is, Luther claims in Table Talk to simply expound the plain sense of Scripture. But many of his meanings and understandings are those of Augustine. One’s past is almost inescapable. Either that, or the Holy Spirit inspired Luther and Augustine to say the same things.

So we see these things — justification by faith, a high view of Scripture, combating abuse and corruption in the church — and we say, ‘Huzzah! We are Protestants like Brother Martin!’

If you are Presbyterian or Baptist or Pentecostal or a certain variety of Anglican or Salvation Army, go and read Brother Martin’s treatise On the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. I like it. It has challenged my commitment to some of the Articles of Religion, I admit, but I still like it.

The upshot of this rambling post: Martin Luther did some Big Things, and his 95 Theses were the start of those Things. But as a figure, he is a man. Simul justus et peccator — at once justified and a sinner. You will like some of the things he says (even a modern Roman Catholic would!). You will probably dislike others (I know I do). But he is an unavoidable, unstoppable force who, I believe, did much good by the grace of God and despite his failings.