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.

The Desert Fathers and Anglican Devotion

Launcelot Andrews (1555-1626)

It’s pretty easy to make an argument for any Protestant to read the Church Fathers at large. Do you believe in the Trinity? Recite the Nicene Creed? Well, then, read St Athanasius, the Cappadocian Fathers, St Augustine. Do you believe that Jesus is fully God and fully man? Well, then, read Sts Cyril of Alexandria, Leo the Great, and Maximus the Confessor. Grappling with the question of religious images? Read St John of Damascus. Are you pondering why God became man? Well, then, read St Irenaeus of Lyons. Want to read the Bible better? Read St Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana.

From the perspective of Anglican devotion, St Augustine’s theology of grace gives us good insights into the theology of the Prayer Book collects. Sts Hippolytus and John Chrysostom show us something about the history of our Eucharistic liturgy — as well as the “Prayer of St Chrysostom”. At the heart of the Anglican daily office lies the Psalter: Here, Sts Athanasius and Augustine are a great help.

Spending time with these Fathers will only help us do a better job of being Anglican, Protestant, whatever.

But what about the Desert Fathers? What do we gain from celibate men and women who cut themselves off from normal society, were consciously sleep deprived, ate only once a day, and were professional pray-ers? What can ancient monks do for the devotional lives of Anglicans? And lay Anglicans, at that?

This question is particularly strong for people of my generation who grew up in Anglican churches, at least in Canada, that had a strong Sunday liturgical tradition of Holy Communion and even hymns, but whose devotional world, Monday-Saturday, was the same as that of the Baptist down the road. A lot of room to be truly healthy and holy, but not a lot that was specifically Anglican. At a certain level, hey-ho, that’s fine! Holiness is the goal, not Anglicanness.

But if a standard, evangelical “quiet time”, maybe with some charismatic elements tossed in, is what your devotional life is used to, then the Desert Fathers can be quite foreign, I can assure you.

They can also be quite reassuring and challenging in a good way, though. When I was an undergrad, like a lot of young people, I briefly flirted with the idea of not being purposely and consciously Anglican. And yet whenever I came up against something with which I disagreed, whether from Roman Catholics or evangelicals, I found myself simply Anglican. So I read the 39 Articles again and decided that, regardless of what it meant for other Christians to be Pentecostals, Ukrainian Orthodox, Baptists, or Free Methodists, I was, quite honestly, Anglican. It was silly to pretend otherwise.

Thus, one Lent I chose for my devotional exercise the praying of one office from the BCP (1962) every day. This ended up being Compline, and this time also ended up being my time of “conversion” (if you will) to the Prayer Book. Anyway, that was the same year I met the Desert Fathers and fell in love with their wacky monomaniacal devotion to the Triune God.

This compline-desert confluence is where the Desert Fathers help out the Anglican. The daily office, especially Morning and Evening Prayer, is fairly central to the Anglican devotional tradition. At the heart of the office, alongside the set canticles common to each day, are a monthly rotation through the Book of Psalms and a yearly cycle through the Bible.

Reading the Desert Fathers and learning about their rule of prayer is actually, at base, a simply encouragement for an evangelical Anglican who wants to discover the divine office, for here you will meet the antiquity of your own devotional practices. Not in a “Ha ha, Alliance Church!” sort of way, but in a reassuring way, that this is part of our own heritage and bigger than any single Christian tradition.

At the heart of the devotional life and prayer of the Desert and the tradition that flows from it, whether Benedictines and Cistercians in the West or Mount Athos and St Catherine’s, Sinai, in the East, is the Psalter, coupled with trying to live the words of Scripture. I’ll share some of the Desert Fathers’ wisdom on psalmody later, but their approach to the Psalms can really help transform the impact Psalmody has on the praying of the divine office.

I confess to not having read all of Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living, but it strikes me that one central aspect of his book is intentionality in what we do, as well as not attempting to seem holier than we really are. A large quantity of desert literature deals in this question of intention, using the term “watchfulness” (check most of Philokalia, Vol. 1). Watch your thoughts, watch the reasons you choose to do things, watch your feelings, watch your thoughts, watch your actions, watch your feelings, watch your thoughts. Seek purity of heart. Clear the mind of all but Christ.

And if you do decide to get down with the Anglican divines, you’ll discover that ascetic practices (fasting, regulating sleep, etc) are there in William Law and Jeremy Taylor, and the spiritual sense of Scripture peaks through Lancelot Andrewes. The Desert is not so far, after all.

Evil is not part of God’s original creation – Evagrius

Christ on the Cross as the Tree of Life, San Clemente, Rome

I’m working through Robert E. Sinkewicz’s translation of Evagrius of Pontus’ ascetic works preserved in Greek — partly for my own growth, partly as a critique of the Enneagram, partly as preparation for teaching him alongside other Desert Fathers this fall (sign up here!). And today I found, left over from when I was revising a forthcoming article about Evagrius, this draft post here on WordPress, with the above title and these two passages:

5.14 I was almost in all evil in the midst of the congregation and assembly

62. There was [a time] when evil did not exist, and there will be [a time] when it no longer exists; but there was never [a time] when virtue did not exist and there will never be [a time] when it does not exist. For the seeds of virtue are indestructible. And I am convinced by the rich man – almost but not completely given over to every evil – who was condemned to hell because of his evil, and who felt compassion for his brothers (Luke 16:19-31). For to have pity is a very beautiful seed of virtue.

The first is Proverbs 5:14, and the second is an Evagrian scholion from Father Luke Dysinger’s excellent Evagrius website. I was working through these texts as part of a study of Evagrius’ and Cassian’s demonology, and so the origins of evil are part of the question of demons. It struck me because until I studied Cassian for the first time those many years ago, the question of evil’s origins had not fully imprinted itself upon me.

And one of things that I learned from Cassian is that nothing is by nature evil. God does not create evil. Therefore, everything is created good. Evil comes later. And what we see in Evagrius is that not only does evil come later — evil will cease.

There is a pastoral dimension to this, of course. Consider whatever evils one faces, whether it’s temptations to sin or the evils wrought by others against us. Virtue is stronger. Virtue will be there at the end of all things, for it is good and part of the good.

Evil is weak. Evil is a lack.

Good (virtue) is strong. The good is plenitude of being.

So take heart: Evil has not always existed. It will not always exist, either.

Protestants and the Desert Fathers

Earlier this summer, I was blessed to be raised to the rank of Professor of Christian History at Davenant Hall. During the interview, which was one of the best live (alas, not in-person) theological conversations I’ve had in a very long time, one of my colleagues remarked that he thinks it’s cool that we, a Protestant theological college, are offering a course on the Desert Fathers. (Sign up here!)

But, of course, the question is always: How do I sell this to my fellow Protestants?

Why study the Desert Fathers with me? Or at all?

For some people, the Desert Fathers and the entire monastic movement that flows from them represent something in Christianity that is unnecessary at best, Pelagian at worst. Isn’t asceticism an unholy hatred of the body? Don’t the Desert Fathers teach works righteousness?

If we want to answer these questions, we must quickly (if briefly for a blog post) go to the sources (ad fontes! in good Reformational fashion). What is asceticism? What do the Desert Fathers believe about grace? Can we today learn things from them?

Asceticism comes from the Greek word askesis, which is the Greek word for “training”, like athletic training — askesis is the word St Athanasius uses to describe the lifestyle and path of St Antony the Great. It is, then, more like “spiritual training” than hatred of the body. However, the entire human life is lived in the body. Therefore, the training of most Christians in history has involved embodied aspects — and, when healthy, no hatred of the body. Fasting, for example, is simply, well, expected of us by our Lord. And simple eating, simple living, are themselves caught up in various Scriptural injunctions, not to mention St Clement of Alexandria’s Paedagogus.

Here is the lifestyle of St Antony as described by St Athanasius:

All his desire and all his energies he directed toward the great effort of ascetic discipline. So he worked with his hands, having heard ‘Let the lazy person not eat’. [2 Thes 3:10] He would spend part of what he earned on bread and part of it he would give to those who were begging. He prayed all the time, having learned that it is necessary to pray by oneself without ceasing. [See Mt 16:6 and 1 Thes 5:17] Indeed, he paid such close attention to the reading of Scripture that nothing in the Scriptures was wasted. He remembered everything, with the result that for him memory took the place of books.

Life of Antony, 3.5-7, trans. Vivian and Athanassakis

Somewhere, either Evagrius or the Life of Antony, the mean between abuse of the body and its indulgence is counselled in the wisdom of the Desert. The Desert Fathers do not hate the body.

Oh, and before addressing grace, look at where St Antony’s inspiration for askesis came from: Scripture. Indeed, he seems to have lived a life saturated with the Bible, doesn’t he? This is their ideal. In the first monasteries that shared a common life, besides a regular round of praying the Psalms and other Bible-reading, they had major Bible teaching twice a week.

What about grace? The Desert Fathers, after all, expend a lot of energy teaching about, well, expending a lot of energy. One of the famous sayings is that prayer is hard work until your last breath. Where, then, does grace fit in? Here’s what Evagrius says in his short work On the Eight Thoughts:

A great thing is the human being who is helped by God; he is abandoned and then he realizes the weakness of his nature. You have nothing good which you have not received from God (cf. 1 Cor. 4:7). Why then do you glory in another’s good as if it were your own? Why do you pride yourself in the grace of God as if it were your own possession? Acknowledge the one who gave it and do not exalt yourself so much. You are a creature of God; do not reject the Creator. You receive help from God; do not deny your benefactor. (8.12)

In Evagrius of Pontus: The Greek Ascetic Corpus, trans. Robert E Sinkewicz, p. 88.

Evagrius goes on, but I think you get the point.

Finally, there’s a historical reason to study any of the pre-Reformational monastic texts. As Dallas Willard notes in his book The Spirit of the Disciplines, the best books about the spiritual disciplines from Benedict onwards (if not from St Antony onwards…) were written by or about monks. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from them and apply their wisdom to our own situation.

Indeed, we learn Trinitarian theology, Christology, the doctrine of God, ethics, morality, theology of the human will, semiotics, political theology, demonology, diabology (is that the word?), angelology, and (depending on your tradition) church order, liturgy, and canon law from the Fathers.

Why not the spiritual disciplines?

And if so, why not the fathers who were devoted to nothing else in their undivided pursuit of God?

So, come, learn with me this Fall.

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.

Athanasius and the Fatherhood of God

Yesterday was Father’s Day, so I made sure to have a video chat with my Dad and to watch Cars 2 during a thunderstorm with my kids. And crack open a cold one in the evening while preparing tonight’s lecture about Wycliffe and suchlike. I also thought a bit about God as Father.

Most of us think of God as Father in three ways:

  1. Creator of everything. Thus, Father of all humans by analogy.
  2. Adopter of redeemed humans. Thus, Father of some humans by divine will.
  3. Father of the God Word, God the Son, Jesus the Christ. Thus, Father by his own nature.

Actually, most people today, no matter how orthodox their idea of the Trinity, probably rarely think of number 3. St Athanasius (sign up for my Athanasius course today!) did, and when I encountered his ideas early on in my journey into the Fathers, they cemented for me two facts:

  1. The Trinity must be true.
  2. It good and healthy to speak of God as Father, despite the failings of human fathers.

It’s point number 1 that came home to me time and again. Basically, if we take seriously the Bible as being revelatory of God’s nature, then biblical names mean something. The names the Bible uses of God reveal to us something of His nature. Thus, if a biblical name for God is “Father”, we need to take that seriously. The name “Father”, rather than something we came up with like, say “unbegotten”, is revelatory of the divine nature. It means that God has always existed as Father, according to St Athanasius. And therefore, there has always been a Son from eternity.

St Athanasius nuances this with the analogy from human fathers, an analogy that some felt divided Father and Son so that the Son could not be fully God. According to St Athanasius, sons have all the same essential and natural attributes as their fathers. I am a human by nature; so are my sons. Whatever is necessary to my humanity is necessary to theirs — this is in virtue of my having begotten them.

Likewise in the Godhead. Anything that can be predicated of the Father — eternal, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, immortal — can be predicated of the Son. Grasp this with the biblical teaching of God being only one, with the doctrine of divine simplicity, and you are headed straight for the Trinity.

Point number 2 is partly related to this. We need to be able to speak of God as Father because that’s how the Bible does. And biblical names matter. By speaking of God as Father, Athanasius was able to see how Father and Son are homoousios.

Furthermore, in the life-and-worldview of the ancient Christians, influenced by both Scripture and Plato, the reality of human fathers failing did not bear on God the Father at all. God, as Father in all three ways listed above, is the perfect Father, of whom every human father is an imperfect image. Think of the absolute best Dad, and then multiply him by infinity — then you have a poor analogy for the perfect divine Father, God the Creator, and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

And once we embrace these biblical names and the transcendent realities they point us toward, there is no fear of uttering the Scriptural names of the Three Persons of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Sign up for my Athanasius course today!

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.