Abbot Suger on precious objects at worship

Vase provided to St-Denis by Suger

In discussing the many wondrous things he provided for the church at St-Denis, Abbot Suger (1081-1151) writes:

To me, I confess, one thing has always seemed preeminently fitting: that every costlier or costliest thing should serve, first and foremost, for the administration of the Holy Eucharist. If golden pouring vessels, golden vials, golden little mortars used to serve, by the word of God or the command of the Prophet, to collect the blood o f goats or calves or the red heifer: how much more must golden vessels, precious stones, and whatever is most valued among all created things, be laid out, with continual reverence and full devotion, for the reception of the blood of Christ! Surely neither we nor our possessions suffice for this service. If, by a new creation, our substance were reformed from that of the holy Cherubim and Seraphim, it would still offer an insufficient and unworthy service for so great and so ineffable a victim; and yet we have so great a propitiation for our sins. The detractors also object that a saintly mind, a pure heart, a faithful intention ought to suffice for this sacred function; and we, too, explicitly and especially affirm that it is these that principally matter. [But] we profess that we must do homage also through the outward ornaments of sacred vessels, and to nothing in the world in an equal degree as to the service of the Holy Sacrifice, with all inner purity and with all outward splendor. For it behooves us most becomingly to serve Our Saviour in all things in a universal way — Him Who has not refused to provide for us in all things in a universal way and without any exception; Who has fused our nature with His into one admirable individuality; Who, setting us on His right hand, has promised us in truth to possess His kingdom; our Lord Who liveth and reigneth for ever and ever. (From this website)

The final sentence points us to an approach to liturgy and worship very different from either a simple Presbyterian chapel with a cappella Psalms or a mega-church stadium with a rock band, ‘For it behooves us most becomingly to serve Our Saviour in all things in a universal way.’ What matters to Suger, whether he’s providing beautiful vessels for the liturgy or inventing Gothic architecture, is offering the highest worship to the highest God; the greatest goods to the greatest good.

Crystal vase provided to St-Denis by Suger

I do not write this post to condemn either approach to worshipping God. I, myself, would prefer something in the middle. Instead, I simply want to highlight this mindset, this outlook, this worldview — once you start to grasp it, you will come to appreciate high liturgy more, whether you agree with everything its supporters say or not.

What, I would argue, Suger is saying here and in the context of the passage, is that Jesus Christ is excellent and praiseworthy. He communicates to us, with us, through the Blessed Sacrament, celebrate by the assembled faithful in church. Therefore, we should go all-out in worshipping him. No expense should be spared in worshipping Jesus. Build beautiful buildings. Craft beautiful liturgical vessels. Sing beautiful songs. Extend the worship. Stand. Bow. Kneel. Use stained glass; use gold; use crystal; use alabaster. Sing Scripture. Do processions. Wear fancy clothes.

Nothing is more wonderful than the Body and Blood of Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Nothing is more wonderful than worshipping Him and praising Him.

He is the best, most excellent, most sublime.

He deserves, therefore, the best we have to offer. No half-measures in liturgy, then. No half-hearted worship. Do your best, even if your best isn’t very good. Hold nothing back. Throw yourself at his feet, for He is more excellent than anyone you will ever meet.

It’s a different approach.

How can it inform your private devotion today? Your church’s act of worship on Sunday, whether liturgical or not?

Rogations (Late Antique Christianity today?)

Most of us pay no heed to the Rogations or ‘Rogationtide’. Most Anglicans observe these three days, Monday-Wednesday before Ascension, by not observing them. Or simply noting a different collect from Sunday and a shift from the lectio continua and round of Psalms in the Prayer Book lectionary for Morning and Evening Prayer. Everything has an origin. In this case, fifth-century Gaul.

St Mamertus (Bishop of Vienne, dca 475, brother of Claudianus Mamertus) introduced the Rogations, as we read in Sidonius Apollinaris (430-89) in a letter to his friend Aper:

The solemn observance of these [Rogations] was first inititaed, and introduced to us by the father and pontiff Mamertus, who thereby set an example worthy of all reverence and launched a most salutary venture. Before this the public prayers (with all respect to the faith, be it said) were irregular, lukewarm, sparsely attended, and, so to speak, full of yawns; their purpose was frequently obscured by the disturbing interruptions for meals, and they tended to become for the most part petitions for rain or for fine weather; indeed, to put it mildly, the potter and the gardene ought not to have attended them together. 3. But in these Rogations, which the aforesaid chief priest has both made known to us and made over to us, there are prayer and fasting, psalmody and lamentation. I beg your presence at this festival of humbly bowed heads, this fellowship of sighing suppliants; and if I am a true judge of your spiritual leanings you will come all the more promptly now that you are summoned not to a feast but to tears. Farewell. (Letters 5.14; trans. W.B. Anderson, Loeb Classical Library)

Sidonius also mentions the Rogations in a letter to Mamertus, saying that they are a consolation to the people of Auvergne in the impending invasion of the Goths (Letters 7.1), saying later in the letter:

This people of Clermont, knowing that these calamities all came upon your people of Vienne before your intervention and have not come near them since, eagerly follow the lead of your hallowed instruction, diligently entreating that one so blessedly supreme in spirituality may grant the support of his prayers to those to whom he has now sent copies of the Rogations.

Later in the century, Alcimus Ecdicius Avitus, Bishop of Vienne (ca 494 – ca 518) preached homilies on the Rogations. Avitus says:

The bishop therefore tested the initial enthusiasm, being particularly concerned to hold the prayer of the first procession at the basilica which was then nearer the walls of the city, so that the observation should not immediately become contemptible at its inception, with few supporting it, on account of the slowness of the people to take it up. It went with great speed, large numbers and the greatest remorse, so that the procession truly seemed short and narrow to the tears and labours of the people. But as soon as the holy bishop saw signs of greater things from the effect of the lesser ones, there was instituted on the following day what we are about to undergo first, i.e. tomorrow, if God assents. The churches of the Gauls subsequently followed the action that set such a pleasing example, but in such a fashion that it was not celebrated among all on the same days on which it had been instituted among us.

… And if we ought assiduously to confess that we have sinned, there is a need for the duty of confessing and of the humility of repenting – above all because the compunction of the united populace can thus be combined with the incitement of good works, so that the recalcitrant may blush yet more appropriately, if, contradicting the whole multitude in the solitude of his own mind he does not lament his sins or vice along with the weeping populace. It is therefore necessary to conspire in good work. Each takes from the other either an example from humility or solace in confession. Excessively dangerous and for the few is that lonely combat, in which the strength on the other side is tested. But truly, when the approval of the multitude fights against the common enemy, the courage of another man drags along even the timid soldier. (Homily 6 on the Rogations, trans. Ian Wood for Translated Texts for Historians)

The 511 Council of Orléans uses the fantastic adjective quadraginsimalis to describe the Rogations — ‘Lent-like’. The penitential character is thus key, along with public prayers to God (litanies), combined with processions. By the 590s, Gregory of Tours seems just to assume that the Rogations are a regular part of liturgical life.

I shall not trace the history farther because it would take me too long to learn it. Nonetheless, the practice spread from Gaul; it likely went to England with the Roman missionaries who had a lot of contact with Gaul (recall that Augustine of Canterbury was consecrated by the Metropolitan of Arles). Frankish and Anglo-Saxon Christianity interacted a lot in the Early Middle Ages, and then England got conquered by William the Bastard in 1066, himself from France.

As I say, I don’t know any congregation that practices this Late Antique solemn observance, although they probably exist. Whether they do processions, who can say? Nonetheless, for the past three days, I’ve prayed the Litany at Morning Prayer, as well as this Collect:

Assist us mercifully, O Lord, in these our supplications and prayers, and dispose the way of thy servants towards the attainment of everlasting salvation; that, among all the changes and chances of this mortal life, they may ever be defended by thy most gracious and ready help; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

We may no longer see natural disaster as God’s judgement for our sins (and no good Augustinian should!), but we should nevertheless live lives of repentance as well as intercessory supplication. The Rogations are as good a time as any to readjust our focus, and in observing them we can join with our forebears in the faith back to the year 473.

 

 

Vespers in May

Last night I went to Vespers for the first time in a few months. Vespers at the Orthodox Community of St Andrew here in Edinburgh is always at 6:30. Last time I was there, it was winter. 6:30 in an Edinburgh winter is black, dark night. The chapel is lit by the oil lamps hanging in front of icons and a few lights behind the iconostasis as well as a lamp on the lectern.

Vespers in winter is cozy, comforting. (See my post from my first visit a few years ago.)

In May, however, we have yet to reach sunset.

Vespers in May in Scotland is bright, sunny. We are still tending towards sundown (wait six weeks for Vespers in broad daylight), but there is a nice, fiery, late evening glow to the light shining in through the windows and playing on the icons, the chandelier, the censer, Father Raphael’s gilt chasuble (not sure if that’s the right word).

Shafts of light from this late evening sun illuminate the clouds of incense.

It is fitting, in this Easter season, to sing and pray in the light, for Christ is the light of the world.

Last night, I was also appointed lector for about 5 minutes. I read out a Psalm and recited, ‘Lord, have mercy,’ several times during some of the prayers.

I think Alexander Schmemann said that it takes 46 books to do the whole cycle of Orthodox services. Father Raphael and I were having a bit of difficulty finding where we were meant to be — Feast of Mid-Pentecost along with St Simon the Zealot and Tuesday evening — but Father Avraamy arrived, saved the day and took over as reader.

There is a different comfort here from winter, a brighter invitation at the Feast of Mid-Pentecost than in the bleak mid-winter.

Mystical Prayer and Biblical Christianity 2: Silence in context

Continuing from yesterday’s post about Timothy Keller’s negative views of mysticism in Prayer, I would like to discuss the lived reality of the mystical, contemplative tradition within Christianity. The arguments of John Jefferson Davis as presented by Keller present an opposition, almost a mutual exclusivity, between verbal prayer and non-verbal silent prayer.

It is true that Christians from at least as far back as Evagrius of Pontus in the 300s have said things like, ‘Contemplation of the most holy Trinity is the highest calling of the Christian.’ (Evagrius said that, in fact.) And it is worth challenging this pre-eminence given to mystical contemplation in certain corners of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox worlds, using Scripture and other pathways of tradition in the process.

The lived experience of most mystics is not one of opposition to verbal prayer, however. We cannot understand Christian mysticism and contemplation if we choose to look at, say, only Thomas Merton’s more Buddhist moments or Anthony de Mello’s truly Buddhist moments or only the works about mysticism by certain writers. Christian mysticism as practised by the majority of believers seeking inner peace, seeking God in silence, seeking inner prayer, treading the path of negation, is not done in a pure vacuum.

And it seems to me that Davis as represented (and tacitly endorsed?) by Keller either misunderstands mysticism as a whole or has only read certain works that espouse a certain view. First, mysticism is not done in pure isolation. Second, contemplative prayer is part of a wider life of Christian discipline and service. Third, turning ‘inward’ to God is not pantheism and does not ignore transcendence since it is also a turning ‘upward’, which is precisely what Davis believes prayer should do.

First, then — mystical exercises, contemplative prayer, are not matters done in isolation. While there have been and still are hermits and anchorites who spend their days alone, this is not the experience of the bulk of the Christians within the mystical tradition.

As they come to mind: St Hildegard was an abbess, St Bernard an abbot, St Bonaventure a travelling preacher and head of the Franciscan order, Meister Eckhart a Dominican preacher, St Catherine of Siena a nun in community, although Lady Julian of Norwich was an anchorite she had visitors, St John Climacus an abbot, St John Cassian an abbot, St Maximus the Confessor was involved in controversy as was St Gregory Palamas, St Teresa of Ávila was an abbess, St John of the Cross was an abbot and also spent some time imprisoned by fellow monks, Brother Lawrence a Carmelite laybrother, and on and on and on.

St Basil the Great, himself a founder of the ascetic, monastic tradition wherein mysticism flourishes, believed in the necessity of community. So did St Benedict, for that matter. The regulated Christian life of a monk or a mendicant friar involved daily interactions with others. And verbal prayer. Ideally, it involves manual labour. It involves chores, and verbal prayers. For those of priestly rank, it may involve pastoral care and verbal prayers. For many of those I listed above, it involved frequent preaching of the word of God and verbal prayer. Indeed, it also involves a reading and rereading and internalising of sacred Scripture, accompanied by verbal prayer.

Intercession is a key part of the wider world of prayer inhabited by the greatest mystical writers. We should not lose sight of that.

Second, contemplative prayer and mysticism are not the only part of the spiritual life under discussion. The Philokalia is a five-volume guide to this single aspect of life as taught and practised by Late Antique and Byzantine Greek monastics. Many of the writers included in the anthology also have writings on various other aspects of life, on acts of charity, on the study and interpretation of scripture, on systematic/dogmatic theology, on the disciplines of the Christian life, etc., etc. Many of them were preachers.

What we think of as ‘mystical activity’ is not the only part of the life of the greatest Christian mystics. People like St John of the Cross and St Teresa of Ávila had great encounters with God, and spent a lot of time in quiet, reflective prayer. But they also counselled others, wrote letters, met with each other, gave pastoral guidance to their fellow monks and nuns, and so forth.

The best of them prayed with words, too. They prayed the liturgy. They prayed prayers of intercession. They led or received the Blessed Sacrament. They were part of the corporate life of the church, even if they also believed in the importance of aloneness and silence before the mysterium tremendum. Today’s Eastern Orthodox proponents of silent prayer and mysticism pray with words, too; I know some of them and have read books by others.

Point 3 will be for tomorrow; I’ll pause here.

Books … or people?

Fact: I am not a sap who typically says things like, ‘It’s the human connections that really matter. It’s about the people in our lives. People matter more than experiences. What’s really important is family and friendship.’

Allow me briefly do that.

I am about to read the book Prayer by Timothy Keller as part of a church group. Fact: I have never read a Tim Keller book before. I’m not really the sort who reads American ‘celebrity’ pastors. I do read British ‘celebrity’ Orthodox bishops and archimandrites, though. Due to my own trajectory, my own personality, my own past, my own likes and dislikes, my own sins, my own virtues, I am less likely now to read books by people like Tim Keller than books by people like Father Zacharias of the Patriarchal Stavropegic Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Essex, England.

I was thinking about this, and about writing a post about that trajectory, and the books that have helped me get where I am, from Andrew Murray’s A 31-Day Guide to Prayer read whilst a teenager, to James Houston’s The Tranforming Power of Prayer at age 22, to now, 33 years old and reading Kallistos Ware in my spare time (and St. Cyril of Alexandria at work!).

At the end of that draft, I felt, ‘To what avail?’

And I thought of Fr Raphael’s tutelage in the Jesus Prayer. And I thought of the accountability of praying the daily office with my brother as part of the Witness Cloud. And I thought of the time spent talking about spiritual growth and prayer with a number of people over the years — friends, family, mentors.

If my hard heart is softer, my mind more attuned to God, it is more recognizably so through these interactions.

But the books have helped. I know that they have. Yet sometimes one feels like, after so many books about prayer, Morning Prayers, Jesus Prayers, extemporaneous prayers, prayers in tongues, etc, etc, one still sits at the bottom rung of the Ladder of Divine Ascent, as poor and sinful as ever one was at the start.

One week until Lent

Gothic Altarpiece, Musee de Cluny, Paris
Gothic Altarpiece, Musee de Cluny, Paris

Lent starts in a week (unless you’re Eastern Orthodox, in which case it starts in five days).

The question of Lenten discipline inevitably arises, whether simply in one’s own mind, or in conversation with friends.

“What are you giving up for Lent?” everyone asks.

Chocolate? Alcohol? R-rated films? Smoking? Coffee? Sweets? Meat?

Sure. Any of these will do.

The point of Lent is not the giving-up-of-things.

The point of Lent is disciplina, the training/teaching of ourselves, the preparation of our spirits for the Great Feast of Easter — the Chief Feast of the Christian year. We want to draw nearer to God. So we fast or abstain or pray more or study a particular book of the Bible or another work of spiritual edification.

I read James W. Kennedy, Holy Island: A Lenten Pilgrimage to Lindisfarne one year. Another year, it was Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline. Once I read Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica, Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives. My Lenten reading seems to have been as eclectic yet predictable as ever.

One year I prayed BCP Compline every night. That was 2004. I fell in love with the BCP that year. Maybe this year you’ll choose to journey with us through the daily office over at The Witness Cloud.

Even if you belong to a church that has canonical demands for Lenten discipline (that is, observant Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox), spiritual discipline — Lenten or otherwise — is not one-size-fits-all. I know one Cypriot Orthodox priest who gives up sweets for Lent because he does not eat a lot of meat, so the canonical discipline is not so demanding.

Thus St Mark the Monk/Ascetic/Hermit:

There are many differing methods of prayer. No method is harmful; if it were, it would be not prayer but the activity of Satan. ~ch. 22 in ‘On the Spiritual Law: Two Hundred Texts’, in The Philokalia, trans. Palmer, Sherrard, Ware, p. 111

Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines, provides us with similar insights, in particular from the introduction to Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living in Appendix I.

What matters is not which discipline you take on in Lent. What matters is ordering our hearts and minds to the greater love of God and neighbour. So think carefully and prayerfully this next seven-day as to what you may do.

(And so I seem to have come around to Cassian and ‘purity of heart’ all over again.)

Candles at Candlemas (Cistercians for Groundhog Day/Feast of the Presentation)

IMG_9737Historically, the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple would involve the blessing of candles by the local priest — hence ‘Candlemas’. Also, as we shall see in what I am about to post, people carried their own candles, at least in the twelfth century. And why carry lights? What is the significance of light? Let us remember that Christ is the Light of the World. Here is Cistercian abbot Guerric of Igny (1070-1157), from a sermon for this feast:

But let us rather discuss, if you will, the lovely custom in the Church of bearing liths on this feast-day, and how it bodies forth what was done in the past and also what we should be doing now. Not that I suppose you are unaware of this, even if it has never been set out for you. Which of you today, bearing a lighted candle in his hands, does not instantly call to mind the old man who took Jesus in his arms this day — the Word clothed in flesh as the candle-flame is cupped in wax — declaring him to be the light that would enlighten the Gentiles. And Simeon was himself a lamp lit and shining, bearing witness to the light, he who came at the Spirit’s prompting into the temple, to receive, O God, in the midst of the temple your loving-kindness, and to proclaim him to be indeed your loving-kindness and the light of your people.

Ah! brothers, look where the candle burns in Simeon’s hands; that is the light to light your tapers from, those lamps which the Lord would have you holding. Go to him and you will be lit up, not so much bearers of almps as lamps yourselves, shining within and without, lighting yourselves and your neighbours. May this lamp be in heart and hand and mouth: a lamp in your heart to light yourself, a lamp in your hands and on your lips to light your neighbours. The light in your heart is loving faith; the lamp in your hands is the example of good deeds; the lamp on your lips, helpful and strengthening words. We must not only shine in the sight of men by our deeds and words: we need to shine through prayer in the sight of the angles and before God in sincerity of heart. We light in the sight of the angels the lamp of pure devotion when we sing with diligence and pray with fervour. Our lamp that burns before God is our singleness of heart in pleasing him alone whose approval we have won.

So that you may light all these lamps for yourselves, my brothers, come to the source of light and be enlightened. Draw close to Jesus … (From the First Sermon for the Purification, in The Cistercian World, ed. and trans. P. Matarasso, pp. 133-135)