“he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”

This is the reflection I prepared this past Sunday for my worshipping community, Thunder Bay’s Urban Abbey.

This week’s Old Testament passage is one of the most famous passages in Scripture. Adam and Eve have transgressed the one and only command given to them and eaten of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. This has resulted in them becoming aware of their own nakedness. They have hidden from God, with Whom they used to have a “face-to-face” relationship. God now comes looking for them and asks them what they have done. Adam blames Eve. Eve blames the serpent. And the serpent does not have a leg to stand on. Thus, God curses the serpent. The passage ends there today, but we know how it continues. Adam and Eve likewise are cursed and thrown out of the garden to toil for the rest of their lives, and then, with immortality lost, they will die. To gain the full import of the curse upon the serpent, we need to be aware of the Fall of the man and woman and what it means, for God says to the serpent in verse 15, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.” This verse is hugely important, so I will meditate on its meaning and significance hereon out.

First, who is the serpent? The serpent, of course, is the Devil, that fallen angel who leads the band of other fallen angels, unrepentant and in rebellion against God. Did he manifest himself literally in human history as a snake, or is this story more symbolic in its portrayal of Satan’s testing of humanity, of him luring our forebears and each of us ourselves into sin? I do not know. But it is certainly the case that every generation of humans finds itself confronting the serpent, whispering his lies about God into our hearts, luring us away from the truest, happiest path in the universe to pursue his path. And so we go, lured away by the Devil, thinking we are doing it “my way”, and abandoning the path for which we were made. The general testimony of the Bible about Satan is that he exists to accuse humans; he and his demons are in enmity with God and with us; he has some sort of claim over the souls of dead humans as a result of sin; he was cast out of heaven by the Archangel Michael; his final downfall at the hands of Christ is assured. Despite the sensationalism of Hollywood and Frank Peretti novels, the main business the Devil and his minions are up to in our own lives is tempting us to sin and distracting us from God.

Second, what is the primary part of the curse on the man and the woman? Earlier in Genesis, God had warned the man and the woman that if they ate of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they would “die die”, often translated in English as “you shall surely die” or “die the death”. In Latin, this manner of Hebrew emphatic speech is given as “die by death,” and Greek doubles it up with an emphatic verb for “die” as well as “by death.” And that this death would occur on that very day. Yet here we see Adam and Eve very much alive on the day they have eaten the fruit. And they live to be expelled from the garden for years before they finally die. Ancient Christians see here in this emphatic double death two deaths. The second death is the bodily death we immediately think of when we think of death. The first death, however, is the departure of God from their souls and lives. God, says St Augustine of Hippo, is the life of the human soul. He is the true Spirit. His departure, then, is the death of the human soul. Adam and Eve, and we ourselves, are no longer intimately united to God. They (we), in fact, fear Him. By the time God comes seeking them, Adam and Eve have already died the first death.

This death of the soul leads to a disjointed human life, self-alienation. We find ourselves living in and crying out from the depths. We wish to do good but cannot. Sometimes even the good we seek to do turns into evil in the very act! As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn says in The Gulag Archipelago, the line between good and evil runs through every human heart. Thus, not only do humans die physical death, which itself can be a terrible thing and fills most humans with dread (even Our Lord groaned at the death of Lazarus—Lazarus whom He would momentarily raise to life!!), we die a spiritual death of the soul long before that. This state of sorrow as we walk this earthly existence is found at the beginning of today’s Psalm 130:1-3:

Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD.
Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!
If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?

Third, how is verse 15 fulfilled? In today’s Gospel passage, Mark 3:20-35, we see Jesus accused of casting out demons by the power of the serpent. After scorning this idea, Jesus presents the image of the strong man who breaks into someone’s house. Unless that strong man is bound and the house protected, he’ll come back. Jesus is the One Who will bind the strong man. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus is waging war against the powers of darkness. Although the serpent and his minions clearly don’t realise the full truth of Jesus’ identity, there is more demonic activity in the Gospels than in the Old Testament, Acts, or the history of the church. They see something going on in Him, and they fight back. Jesus is the son of Eve prophesied in Genesis 3. He has come to bruise the serpent. So the serpent lashes out—hence all the demons who meet with Jesus. But the serpent undoes himself by his own attack on the Lord’s Anointed. For his own plan, and that of the fallen humans who have lost sight of the one, true, and living God, culminates in the unjust, public, humiliating execution of the Messiah, seeking to crush any hopes of salvation for the human race.

The serpent bites the heel of Eve’s Son.

But He crushes the serpent’s head.

The paradox of how Satan’s own plan undoes itself is encapsulated in a few lines of poetry by the fourth-century poet St Ephrem the Syrian:

The evil one fled from Him for awhile.

In the time of crucifixion he arrived,

and by the hand of the crucifiers he killed Him

so that He fell in the contest with death

to conquer Satan and death.

Hymns on Virginity 12

Christ has not died the first death whereby God departs from the human soul. Christ has not sinned. He does not deserve this second death, the death of the body. The ransom the devil is owed for his human life is taken unjustly. Not only that, Christ Himself is the one, true, and living God. Mortality cannot hold Him. And so, trampling down death by death, He destroys the power of the serpent and the power of death, undoing the curse and enabling humans to live according to the true, good nature in which God had first created them. Us. All we need do is trust in Him and accept the gift that His conquest of the serpent provides us.

Fourth, what are the ramifications of this for the human race? The ramifications of the destruction of the power of the devil are manifold. We can live forever. We can be freed from the corrupting power of sin. We can, therefore, resist the temptations we face from the serpent and his fallen angels. Not only this, but with the death of God on a Cross, humanity will never be the same again. God did not merely take onto Himself the just penalty for our wrongdoings when He was crucified (but that is certainly part of it!), He also brought humanity into divinity in a mysterious manner. What this means is that the regenerated life that accepts the gift of God in Jesus Christ finds itself on a new, better trajectory than the one in Eden before the Fall, intimately united with the life of Christ, its head. God’s plan is ultimately for the good—or rather, the best. We find ourselves invited to participate in the divine life when we accept the saving death of Jesus, when we enroll as His apprentices, and when we die to ourselves and rise again through the waters of baptism. We participate in that divine life at the Holy Communion.

And we will participate in it in the most glorious fashion in the final days, in the new heaven and the new earth, when we behold God face to face in that vision that brings true, ultimate happiness. This is the destiny of all who accept the fulfilment of the promise of Genesis 3:15. Eve’s Son has crushed the head of the serpent, and everything sad is coming untrue. We will live forever in glory. This is the promise of today’s epistle reading, 2 Corinthians 4:16-5:1:

So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.

Fifth, what is our here-and-now response to this good news? Worship and praise of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So, to close, a pair of hymns from the Orthodox hymn book, the Octoechos:

TROPARION

By Your Cross, You destroyed death.

To the thief, You opened paradise.

For the Myrrhbearers, You changed weeping into joy.

And You commanded Your Disciples, O Christ God,

To proclaim that You are risen,

Granting the world great mercy.

KONTAKION

The dominion of death can no longer hold men captive,

For Christ descended, shattering, and destroying its powers.

Hades is bound, while the prophets rejoice, and cry out:

The Saviour has come to those in faith.

Enter, you faithful, into the resurrection.

Seeing and believing (John 20)

Cut from the sermon I preached on Easter Sunday on John 20:1-18

Resurrection, from Notre Dame de Paris (my photo)

After the women find the tomb empty, Mary Magdalene tells the apostles. And so Peter and John run together. John never refers to himself by name or in the first person; he is always just “the disciple Jesus loved”. John gets there first, and “bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there…” Peter also “saw the linen wrappings”. John follows Peter now and enters the tomb, “and he saw and believed.”

Here’s a philological moment from Professor Hoskin for you, then.

The Greek uses three different verbs of seeing in this passage. First, βλέπει from βλέπω. When John first arrives and looks in without entering, this is the kind of seeing. It’s your most basic kind of seeing, I guess. See, perceive, that sort of thing.

Second, θεωρεῖ (theorei), from θεωρέω (theoreo). This is the kind of seeing Peter has. This is a deeper kind of seeing, like when you go to the theatre—in fact, the word theatre comes from this verb, as does the word theory, since it can also take on meanings of contemplate and meditate in other contexts.

Third, εἶδεν καὶ ἐπίστευσεν (eiden kai episteusen). This final moment of seeing, εἶδεν (eiden) doesn’t have a present form, which is fulfilled by ὁράω (horao). This time, St John beholds, perceives, observes, really. And then he believes. I guess this means that he believes in the Resurrection, although he immediately tells us that “as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.”

Which Scripture, you may ask? Psalm 16:10 is one possibility, “For You will not abandon my soul to Hades / Nor allow Your Holy One to see corruption.” Possibly the sign of Jonah that Jesus talks about elsewhere, that just as Jonah was three days in the belly of the fish, so must the Son of Man be in the tomb. Neither of these is a straightforward fulfilment of prophecy the way we moderns like it, though, is it? Not like the suffering servant in Isaiah. Nonetheless, God has interwoven hints and clues of his plan to save us throughout history and throughout the very fabric of sacred Scripture.

When St Mary Magdalene sees the two angels, it is again θεωρεῖ (theorei), and again when she sees Jesus. When she tells the disciples that she has seen him in verse 18, she says, “Ἑώρακα (heoraka),” – “I have seen,” from ὁράω (horao). This is the verb which acts as if it were the present of εἶδεν (eiden).

And now we chart beyond the boundaries of what I had prepared before I cut the sermon down to size…

What is the upshot of all this seeing? I am thinking on this. Do the different verbs of seeing carry great weight in our interpretation of the passage? Should John’s first seeing from outside the tomb be “glance”, and then Peter’s seeing be “observe” or something like that? What about when John looks again?

It seems certain to me that there are perhaps three distinct acts going on with the male disciples. John does, indeed, just glance at first. Peter goes right in, so he sees more clearly. John’s second view that is paired with believing is likewise more than a glance.

But I would always go with the kind of seeing Peter and Mary do as being the deeper — θεωρέω (theoreo): watch, observe, contemplate, meditate on, whereas the other verbs of seeing are more neutral.

There is, of course, always the basic possibility that these are simply three Greek words for “to see” chosen for variation because that’s how ancient literary composition worked. And that’s why many English translations do not distinguish between them, either. (St Augustine wouldn’t like that option, though.)

Epiphany: Lectionaries Keep Christ at the Heart of the Feast

Adoration of the Magi, Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome

Today is the Feast of the Epiphany. Normally we say, “This is when the Wise Men visited Jesus and brought him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” And we’re not wrong in that.

But why is it called Epiphany?

Simply put — it is the revelation of YHWH to the Gentiles, represented by the Wise Men. It is the proclamation of the glorious God to the nations, found in the person of Jesus, the God Word Incarnate.

I’ve been mulling over lectionaries and Bible readings lately. One friend was encouraging people not to do a typical “Read the Bible in a year” plan but to use the daily lectionary from the Revised Common Lectionary because it puts the Scriptures together in Christological, Christocentric perspective. I have a built-in skepticism about the Revised Common Lectionary, so I started evaluating other options, looking for something pre-modern. After a lot of to-ing and fro-ing with my friend Andrew (a mediaeval manuscript guy who is a theologically conservative Anglo-Catholic pondering Eastern Orthodoxy [you can see why we get along]), I learned from him that the Canadian BCP 1962 lectionary for Morning and Evening Prayer is basically medieval.

Anyway, although this exchange also resulted in him sending me a 343-page Mass lectionary based on BCP-Sarum, I am going with BCP 1962, in large part because of the wonderful new Common Prayer Canada app from the Prayer Book Society! And its Scripture readings are doing just what my other, non-Anglican friend was lauding RCL for doing: Christological, Christocentric Scriptures.

Epiphany has been really exciting as a result — Psalms and Prophets proclaiming the recognition of YHWH by the nations, his revelation unto them, and Israel to be a light to lighten the Gentiles. You read this, and then you read …

not the three Wise Men.

This morning, the Second Lesson at Morning Prayer was the Baptism of Christ from Luke 3. And how does this end? “Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased.” The revelation of Christ as God the Son!

The Eastern Churches use a different Greek word for today: Theophany. Today is the Holy Theophany of our Lord Jesus, and it explicitly includes the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan.

Baptism of Christ, Arian Baptistery, Ravenna

Some closing thoughts, then. First: Psalm 87 sees a day when Philistia and Tyre, Babylon and Ethiopia, will worship YHWH. Isaiah sees in multiple places the nations coming to worship the Lord, coming to his holy mountain. The nations, the gentes (hence gentiles), will see the glory of the Lord and recognise him. The wise men who met the child Jesus and bowed and worshipped him were the firstfruits of this crop. We are of the nations as well. What was prophesied in the Hebrew Scriptures is being fulfilled here and now as the glory of the Lord is made known to the ends of the earth because of the ongoing life of Christ, himself the Lord, in his mystical body, the church.

Second: Babylon is gone. The ancient kingdom of Israel is gone. The Persian Empire is gone. The Roman Empire is gone. Some day, the Dominion of Canada, the United States of America, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will all pass away. “Earth’s proud empires pass away,” as the hymn puts it.

But the kingdom of God, the kingdom of the Heavens, revealed and made manifest in Christ at his holy Theophany — this kingdom will never fade. Let us hold to this hope and this citizenship above all.

Justification by Faith Alone

Image courtesy of Mae

Every Sunday morning, I get up at the beginning of church and say a little something about where we are in the church year, highlighting an upcoming saint’s day. So far, I’ve done St Matthew the Apostle (my namesake!), St Michael the Archangel (my brother’s namesake!), St Francis of Assisi (whose feast was actually a Sunday!), St Luke the Evangelist (whose feast was also a Sunday but was used to promote the idea that Every Sunday is Easter instead), and Reformation Day.

Reformation Day is All Hallows Even, and it is the commemoration of Martin Luther pinning the 95 Theses to the church door at Wittenberg. Rather than discuss the 95 Theses themselves — they are mostly about papal indulgences and ecclesiastical abuses — I talked about the importance of the doctrine of justification by faith alone, saying that although there are many sorrowful things to have arisen in the tradition of the Reformation — and people like me who enjoy things pre-modern tend to focus on them — justification by faith alone is the main business of the affair, and it is worth holding on to.

Nothing you do can make you right with God. You just have to trust Him. That’s what faith is. That’s what brings us into right relationship with God.

Now, I have to admit straight out of the gate that I am about to utter a hunch that would require a deeper knowledge of Luther and the magisterial Reformation as well as of Late Mediaeval theology in order to become a thesis, but my hunch is that much of Luther’s teaching on sola fide is not actually counter to the mediaeval, catholic tradition in and of itself, although cranky old man Luther would probably have disagreed after a few pints. My hunch is that Luther’s sola fide represents a legitimate flowering of pre-existing trajectories with Latin catholic thought that, because of other things he said and did, was rejected at Trent (or was it — when Trent’s not being anti-Protestant, the Council Fathers say some beautiful things).

Certainly the whole tradition, East and West, ancient and medieval and modern, Catholic and Protestant and Orthodox, has its lucid moment of what sounds a lot like justification by faith alone. I’m still trying to sort this out, but I’ll close with a quotation from Drinking from the Hidden Fountain, an anthology of daily readings from the Fathers by Thomas Spidlik. This quotation emerged last Saturday just after I had finished meditating on what to say about Reformation Day:

Anyone who is a slave to sin should prepare himself for true regeneration by means of faith. He must shake the hoke of sin off his back and enter the joyful service of the Lord. He will be thought worthy to inherit the kingdom.

Don’t hesitate to declare yourselves sinners. Thereby you will put off your old humanity that was corrupt because it followed the bait of error. And you will put on the new humanity, the humanity newly clad in intimacy with its Creator.

Don’t say: ‘I have been dishonest, an adulterer, I have committed grave offences innumerable times. Will he forgive them? Will he deign to forget them?’ Listen rather to the Psalmist: ‘How great is your love, O Lord.’ (Ps. 31:19)

You sins piled one above the other do not overtop the greatness of God’s love. Your wounds are not too great for the skill of the Doctor.

There is only one course of treatment for you to follow: rely on him in faith. Explain frankly what is wrong to the Doctor and say with the Psalmist: ‘I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity.’ (Ps 32.5) Then you will be able to go on with the Psalmist to say: ‘Then did you forgive the guilt of my sin.’

St Cyril of Jerusalem, Catecheses 1.2ff.

Happy Feast of St Francis

Today is the Feast of St Francis. Now that I’m on the pastoral team at a church (more on that another time), I got to have a two-minute moment introducing the saint, lead everyone in the Peace Prayer falsely attributed to him, recommend to the musicians that we sing “All Creatures of Our God and King” (we did), and project this image by Count von Imhoff, the German painter resident in Saskatchewan a century ago:

St. Francis of Assisi by Count Berthold von Imhoff

That over which I have zero control, of course, is the Revised Common Lectionary, which had Psalm 19 for today. Verses 1-6 are notably Franciscan:

THE heavens declare the glory of God: and the firmament sheweth his handywork.
One day telleth another: and one night certifieth another.
There is neither speech nor language: but their voices are heard among them.
Their sound is gone out into all lands: and their words into the ends of the world.
In them hath he set a tabernacle for the sun: which cometh forth as a bridegroom out of his chamber, and rejoiceth as a giant to run his course.
It goeth forth from the uttermost part of the heaven, and runneth about unto the end of it again: and there is nothing hid from the heat thereof.

Coverdale trans.

However, let it be said that 7-end hit an equally Franciscan note, one less tuned to birdfeeders and warm, cozy “spirituality”:

The law of the Lord is an undefiled law, converting the soul: the testimony of the Lord is sure, and giveth wisdom unto the simple.
The statutes of the Lord are right, and rejoice the heart: the commandment of the Lord is pure, and giveth light unto the eyes.
The fear of the Lord is clean, and endureth for ever: the judgements of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey, and the honey-comb.
Moreover, by them is thy servant taught: and in keeping of them there is great reward.
Who can tell how oft he offendeth: O cleanse thou me from my secret faults.
Keep thy servant also from presumptuous sins, lest they get the dominion over me: so shall I be undefiled, and innocent from the great offence.
Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart: be alway acceptable in thy sight,
O Lord: my strength, and my redeemer.

Coverdale trans.

2020 has brought out the worst in many of us. It strikes me that the Franciscan word we most need is not the Canticle of the Sun but his preaching of repentance, calling people back to Jesus and the worship of the one, true, and living God.

Holy Week by the (Prayer) Book

Inspired by the post I shared from Biltrix about spending Holy Week in the daily readings, I thought I would post each day this week, drawing from the collects (special prayers for the day to collect our thoughts) and readings from the Book of Common Prayer. I missed yesterday (hence my re-post of a sonnet by Malcolm Guite in its stead earlier), so allow me to begin today with a few words of introduction.

It could be argued that the heart of the Prayer Book is not Cranmer’s soaring Tudor prose, nor is it the subtle reformational yet catholic Augustinian theology, but the Bible — consider how much of the book is taken up with the Psalter on the one hand and with the collects, Epistles, and Gospels for the Lord’s Supper on the other. And, of course, an important way the BCP differs from its mediaeval forebears is its daily lectionary for Morning and Evening Prayer, which thrusts the reading of Scripture into the forefront of the office. Finally, of course, the liturgies themselves include entire passages of Scripture as part of them as well as phrases, words, and concepts of Scripture woven throughout the finely crafted prayers.

So if we’re doing Holy Week by the Prayer Book, then the selected readings are a most important part.

The tenor for Holy Week by the Prayer Book is set by the collect, and lived in the readings. I am using the Canadian 1962 BCP, for those who are interested. And here we have, Monday through Thursday, the same collect (with an added one on Maundy Thursday):

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

The readings for Holy Communion today are Isaiah 63:7-9 and Mark 14, which is the beginning of the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ. Every day, in fact, we read part of a passion narrative. Sunday: Matthew. Monday-Tuesday: Mark. Wednesday-Thursday: Luke. Friday: John. Saturday: The deposition and burial from Matthew.

Morning and Evening Prayer move us to the Cross as well. The Second Lesson (the New Testament reading) is from the Gospel of John at both offices every day, moving through the teachings of Our Lord at the Last Supper, His prayer in the Garden, His arrest.

The Book of Common Prayer is Christocentric and crucicentric overall. This week, these two centres of the book come out and come to the fore. There is nothing more worthy to consider, nothing more important to reflect on and pray through, than this. These Gospel lessons are woven together with prophetic readings from the Old Testament and with the reflections of the Epistles, bringing us to the climax of sorrow on Good Friday.

And as we feel the words of the hymn “never was grief like thine,” (“My Song Is Love Unknown”), as we consider the “Christ’s side-piercing spear”, we read and pray Psalms. Today, Psalms 20 and 21 (yet not 22: “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?”). The cross is the victory of God over the power of sin and death, especially when seen as part of the fullness of these days, in light of the power of Easter. And so, as we read the Passion narratives, we pray these words of Scripture:

We will rejoice in thy salvation, and triumph in the Name of our God: the LORD perform all thy petitions.

Now know I that the LORD helpeth his anointed, and will hear him from his holy heaven, even with the wholesome strength of his right hand.

Some put their trust in chariots, and some in horses; but we will remember the Name of the LORD our God.

They are brought down, and fallen; but we are risen and stand upright.

O LORD, save the king, and mercifully hear us when we call upon thee. (Ps. 20:6-9)

Hopefully you will find time in your devotional life to take the BCP’s cue and meditate on his priceless death, on the blood shed for our sin, on the fact that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

The Crucifixion, Studenica, Serbia. 1310s.

Living Scripture

In the Coptic Life of the fourth-century Desert Father Pambo, we read this story:

When he came to the brothers he went and found an old man and said to him, “Teach me a psalm,” for he was illiterate, and the old man began to teach him this psalm: “I said, ‘I will watch my ways so as to be unable to sin with my tongue.'” [Ps 38:2 (LXX)]. And after the old man had given him the beginning of the text, Pambo stopped him, saying, “My father, since I haven’t yet learned the beginning of the text, I will not learn the rest.” And when Abba Pambo went to his cell, he spent eight years putting into practice the saying that he had learned, for he came into contact with no one, saying, “Unless I first master my tongue, I will come into contact with no one lest I fall into sin on account of my tongue.” After eight years, he went and paid a visit to the old man who had given him the psalm. The old man said to him, “Pambo, why haven’t we seen you until today? Why didn’t you come to learn the psalm?” Apa Pambo said to him, “Since I hadn’t learned the first verse, I didn’t return to you to get the second since God had not given me the grace until now to learn it. In order not to act as if I despised you, I have come to visit you, my father. For if I learn the first verse, I will come to see you again.” And when he returned to his cell, he stayed there another ten years and did not come into contact with anyone. -Trans. Tim Vivian, Four Desert Fathers, pp. 58-59

This story is a perfect example of what may be called the Desert hermeneutic — Scripture is not learned or interpreted correctly unless it is lived. It is an approach to the Bible that is common not only to fourth-century Egyptian monks but to The Philokalia as well, as discussed by the chapter by Douglas Burton-Christie in the edited volume, The Philokalia: A Classic Text of Orthodox Spirituality. It’s an idea I first heard articulated in Christopher J. Kelly’s book Cassian’s Conferences, for it is a perspective shared by John Cassian.

Most of us, when we think about “learning” a Psalm probably think how I expect Abba Pambo’s spiritual father was thinking in the story: Pambo will memorise the Psalm and learn how to sing it. And if we think about interpreting a Psalm, we’ll think about dissecting it in various ways: its original poet and audience; its later use in the Temple and Synagogue; its theological significance at the time of composition as well as today; how it can inform our own life of prayer and worship.

For Pambo, the Scriptures are not learned unless they are lived.

He hears, “I will watch my ways so as to be unable to sin with my tongue,” and determines that unless he is unable to sin with his tongue, he has not learned the Psalm. So off he goes to practise.

This is similar to Antony who hears, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me,” (Mt 19:21 NIV) and, rather than relativising or contextualising it as we all have since Clement of Alexandria, he did exactly what the Scripture commands.

It is interesting that this lived hermeneutics, this mimesis or imitation as interpretation, also typifies the Pilgrim in The Way of a Pilgrim; he hears 1 Thess. 5:17, “Pray without ceasing,” and will not rest until he learns the secret — and The Way of a Pilgrim is a book steeped in The Philokalia, a great popularising text of Philokalic spirituality.

I also think this slow approach to the Bible is interesting. I find I have trouble doing things in bits and bobs. Give me a different large-ish chunk to read every day, and I’ll try and read it. Give me one verse to read and meditate on every day, and I’ll get sick of it. I want to blitz through a text — the Bible, a novel, a book of theology. If I divide something up into small bits, it becomes disjointed in my mind.

But for Abba Pambo, internalising the Scripture so that it becomes a characteristic of his own life requires dealing with it one bit at a time.

I have to admit that I’m not the greatest Bible reader. I miss days, sometimes weeks and months, in fact. Sometimes I read quickly and digest nothing. I’d rather be reading a science fiction novel or watching Frasier or Star Trek much of the time. But I am also stirred by high, lofty ideals. Imagine internalising Scripture. Just spending time in it, verse by verse, little by little, learning how to live it, really and truly live it.

It would require grace. I think it may also require a spiritual father — or, at least, a spiritual friend.

As the great Abba Antony said:

Pay attention to what I tell you: whoever you may be, always have God before your eyes; whatever you do, do it according to the testimony of the holy Scriptures; in whatever place you live, do not easily leave it. Keep these three precepts and you will be saved. –Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Antony 3 (trans. Benedicta Ward, p. 2)

Digital resources for the daily office during your daily confinement

In yesterday’s post, I mentioned that a Desert monk of the fourth-century Egyptian desert would have spent most of his or her time confined to the cell praying and reading Scripture. In particular, in fact, they were devoted to praying the Psalms. One example of many:

Oblige yourself to practice the discipline/attention of the psalms, for that will protect you from being captured by the enemy.-Isaiah of Scetê Ascet.
logos 9 (p.84)/Sys. 5.53. (Cited by John Wortley in his article “How the Desert Fathers ‘Meditated’“)

Evagrius writes:

The singing of Psalms quiets the passions and calms the intemperance of the boy. Prayer, on the other hand, prepares the spirit to put its own powers into operation. –Chapters on Prayer 83 (trans. John Eudes Bamberger p. 69)

Prayer in the Egyptian Desert of antiquity happened at fixed times, and it involved singing Psalms.

This practice, variously called the divine office, daily office, liturgy of the hours, fixed-hour prayer, etc., is older than monastic asceticism, attested as early as Tertullian around 200 and the Apostolic Tradition a few decades later (I’ve talked about the latter at least once). Scot McKnight, in his excellent, readable book Praying with the Church, shows the New Testament and Jewish roots of this practice.

So if you’re stuck at home, alone, wondering what to do, seeking some tools to kill time and grow spiritually, maybe even seeking hesychia, here are some resources to help you pray the fixed hours of prayer, beginning with apps for your phone, then online resources, then digitised books.

Apps for your phone

Daily Prayer from the Church of England – This app has Morning, Evening, and Night Prayer in both BCP language and “contemporary.” It gives you the daily readings, including Psalms and both main lessons, and the Collect. This is an advantage over flipping through a BCP and a Bible for ease of comfort — an advantage all born-digital daily office resources tend to have!

iBreviary – This Catholic resource has the Roman Breviary in Italian, English, Spanish, French, Romanian, Arabic, Portuguese, Turkish, Ambrosian Rite in Italian, Monastic Rite in Italian, and Latin, both Tridentine and Novus Ordo. I use the Tridentine Latin, myself, but that’s because I’m old-fashioned and weird. It does the full round of offices of day and night.

Common Prayer – This ecumenical Protestant resource comes from Shane Claiborne, drawing from different traditions but also with a good amount of Scripture. It also means that there is more of an emphasis on social action in the prayers and meditations included. Morning, Midday, and Evening Prayer.

I see some Orthodox resources in the Google Play store, such as Orthodox Daily Prayers from the Orthodox Church in America, but I haven’t tried any out. I’m also sure Lutherans have come up with something, too.

Online Resources

Daily Prayer from the Church of England – Like the app but a website.

Celtic Daily Prayer – The daily offices of the Northumbria Community, providing Morning, Midday, and Evening Prayer. Typically rooted in mediaeval Irish and Scottish sources but with some Desert Fathers in it as well.

Celebrating Common Prayer – This is the daily office of the Anglican Society of Saint Francis with Morning and Evening Prayer as well as Compline.

The Synekdemos: Daily Prayers for Orthodox Christians – Provided by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.

Divinum Officium – This Roman Catholic resource appears to be similar to the iBreviary app noted above.

There are undoubtedly many others, but I’ve never used them!

Digitised Books

Coptic Offices – It seems only right (rite?), given our inspiration here, to include the daily office of the Coptic Orthodox Church, here translated into English.

Breviary Offices from Lauds to Compline – An English translation from mediaeval Use of Sarum, that is, the mediaeval English office. I do not know how easy this would be to use digitally!

The Lesser Hours of the Sarum Breviary – An English translation made principally to fill gaps in the Book of Common Prayer.

Orthodox Daily Prayers  – A 1982 publication from St Tikhon’s Monastery.

Poetry, Prayer, and Praise

Today we commemorate Caedmon, our first recorded English poet. You can read my translation of Bede’s account of Caedmon here. Since I’ve blogged about Caedmon before (here and here), my mind is moving in other directions upon this commemoration of the poet, namely “religious” poetry more widely.

Poetry is the imaginative aspect of human language, the grasping after symbol and metaphor and those moments that dance around the periphery of our vision, seeking to translate the sublime into ink and paper (or pixels on a screen — or carvings on a stone). The poetic mode is not simply verse, not simply the arrangement of human language into line and meter making use of literary devices.

It is that, of course. It is also more like … the grasping of language at the numinous? Even (especially) when it is ordinary.

When we reach for that, when we attempt to rearrange language into line and verse with metaphor and simile, symbol and personification — then even the gore of the dead, the crushing of corpses, in the plains of Ilium rises to the sublime. The horror of the Iliad, that is, is transposed to a higher mode of language through Homer’s poetry than a simple synopsis would make it out to be.

What is interesting is that poetry is not simply there at the fundaments of religion.

It is there at the fundaments of language and literature.

From there to here,
from here to there,
funny things are everywhere.

One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, Dr. Suess

Poetry, like the “funny things” of Dr. Suess, is everywhere. Greek literature does not begin with a prose treatise on government. It begins with Iliad and Odyssey, followed quickly by Theogony, and then, soon thereafter, the Homeric Hymns. Deep in The foundational works of Greek literature are not only poems but also the foundational works of the Greek religious thought-world.

Christianity was born from Judaism, and thus born already with the Psalms, those hymns to YHWH composed and sung by the Jewish people over generations. But it was also born with the canticles in the Gospel of Luke (Magnificat, Benedictus, Nunc Dimittis), with the poetic (if not formal verse) prologue to John, with the prose hymn of Philippians 2.

You may say:

Hey. Prose hymns aren’t poetry.

They aren’t verse.

But can prose not also be poetic?

Be that as it may, Christians began celebrating the blessed Light of salvation in hymns and poems fairly early on (see, ‘O Gladsome Light‘ — second century, maybe?). Latin was a bit slower than Greek in this as in other respects, but in the fourth century, Latin Christian poetry takes off with such people as Ambrose of Milan and Prudentius with his Psychomachia, and there has been no looking back since. (If you want to read some Christian Latin poetry, I recommend One Hundred Latin Hymns: Ambrose to Aquinas.)

Every culture that has Christians in it ends up writing poetry. In the ancient world, this means we get to enjoy, besides the Latins I tend to mention, the Greeks such as Romanus the Melodist and Gregory of Nazianzus, and the Syriac authors like St Ephraim (how many times have I mentioned Ephraim the Syrian on this blog, I wonder?), Jacob of Serugh, and beyond. Medieval Armenia produces Gregory of Narek.

And so the Gospel washes ashore in England, headed for Canterbury from Rome and for Lindisfarne from Ireland. Both continental ‘Roman’ Christianity and insular Irish Christianity are versed in poetry — and the Irish in both Latin and Irish verse (I am fond of St Brigid’s and St Columba’s poetry). With such tutors as these, it comes as no surprise that the English start singing praises of their new God and King.

And our own English tongue has produced a wealth of poetry, of expressing with words something of the inexpressible, of coming close to the Uncreated Light, finding your mind so small, yet wishing, nevertheless, to praise the Holy Trinity, or to attempt to trace the outlines of your own beating heart as you catch a glimpse of Him, whether in the Holy Communion or maybe simply some daffodils.

In today’s utilitarian world, where the Prosperity Gospel wants to use Jesus to get rich quick, where we try to parse the mystery of the Eucharist to its last moment, where people walk out of sessions on biblical theology saying that they didn’t ‘get anything out of it’, where we want our sermons served up with a good side of ‘what should I do’, where we forget transcendence in favour of social action —–

God breaks through.

And He has some poets to help us see Him — Malcolm Guite, Luci Shaw, Scott Cairns, as well as singer-songwriters Steve Bell and John Michael Talbot all spring to mind.

Maybe you could be one of them, too.

What did ancient/early medieval monks read?

John-Incipit-web1-copy
Incipit of John, Lindisfarne Gospels, Anglo-Saxon gloss

A couple of years ago, I posted about why ancient/early medieval monks read, sharing an excellent quote from Pierre Riché’s book about early medieval education. Lately, I’ve been looking into the libraries of some famous monasteries that gave us copies of Leo’s letters, and I thought I’d share a bit of what these late antique and early medieval monks were reading.

The two monasteries I’m really interesting in sharing with you about are Bobbio, founded by St Columbanus (famously Irish and therefore ‘Celtic’ — for my misgivings about ‘Celtic Christianity’, start here), Corbie, founded in the seventh century by monks from Luxeuil — Luxeuil was also founded by Columbanus.

Bobbio

The monastery of Bobbio was founded in 614 and is considered the ‘Montecassino of northern Italy’ — Montecassino being St Benedict’s monastery. However, whereas Montecassino is still a functioning monastery, Bobbio is not, having been suppressed by the French in 1803 along with many Italian abbeys.

Like many monastic centres on the continent, Bobbio maintained contact with Insular Christianity throughout the Early Middle Ages, visible in both the persons who passed through, their way of writing, and sometimes the language they wrote in. For this reason, I think Bobbio is of interest for those who invest themselves in ‘Celtic’ Christianity.

Here’s what they were reading in the early days, gleaned from Richter, Bobbio in the Early Middle Ages, a book more interested in discussing Bobbio’s relationship to Ireland than the contents of the manuscripts.

The contintental fathers of the church:

  • One of the earliest Bobbio manuscripts is a copy of St Jerome’s Commentary on Isaiah (Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana, S. 45 sup. [saec. VII]).
  • Another potentially seventh-century Bobbio manuscript is a fragment of Pope St Gregory the Great, Dialogues — a collection of lives of Italian saints, include St .Benedict (Stuttgart, Wurttemburgische Landesbibliothek Theol. et Philos. QU. 628).
  • Orosius (Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana D. 23 sup.)
  • St Augustine of Hippo (Turin A. II.2)
  • St Basil (Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana, C. 26 sup.) – Columbanus liked Basil; this is presumably from the ascetic corpus, the Asketikon
  • Gennadius — presumably his Lives of Illustrious Men (Milan, O. 212 sup.)

One of the things I like to point out is that, even if culture and isolation and history and other factors meant that Irish Christianity took some of its own interesting turns along the course of the Early Middle Ages, Irish Christians still saw themselves as part of this big, catholic family.

Law! Apparently, our earliest copy of the first surviving Lombard law code survives in many fragments from Bobbio (St-Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek 730). This makes sense — monks, no matter how hard they try, are still part of wider society.

The Bible! Because of the difficulties facing manuscript survival and the sad history of the monastery, we only have some fragments from the Bible. But if you consider the Rule of St Columbanus, they must have had Bibles!!

Manuscripts that were at Bobbio a bit later include The Life of St Columbanus, the Rule of St Columbanus, a commentary on the Psalms (logically enough, given how much Psalm-singing Columbanus required), Adomnán of Iona’s On the Holy Places, St Augustine of Hippo on Matthew and Luke, and some other material connected with Ireland.

Richter (pp. 146ff.) also discusses the presence of books on computistics (something Irish and English Christians were very into back in the day), Roman secular authors, and grammars.

What I have not found in Richter’s book is any reference to the Bobbio Missal (Paris, lat. 13246), somewhat suprisingly. This Missal is an important witness to seventh- or eighth-century liturgical practice in places that we might cautiously think of liturgically as ‘Gallican’. However, it seems that it was probably not at Bobbio at the time. Oh well. Still, follow the link above and see what it looks like.

Corbie

Corbie was founded in the mid-600s by monks from Luxeuil and flourished throughout the Early Middle Ages. It originally followed the regula mixta — a blend of Benedict and Columbanus. It was dissolved during the French Revolution. My source here is more intensively focussed on the manuscripts than for Bobbio — David Ganz, Bobbio in the Carolingian Renaissance.

First things first: One of our oldest canon law manuscripts is the Collectio Corbeiensis (Paris, lat. 12097, sixth-century: this manuscript is from the patristic era itself!). This manuscript was not copied at Corbie, but it came there in the seventh century, so it is relevant to the discussion. It is comprised mainly of the canons of church councils and papal letters. On the one hand, law is important for the running of a monastery. On the other hand, the sources for canon law are not themselves beyond the scope of theology (as demonstrated by John C. Wei, Gratian the Theologian).

Ganz lists these manuscripts as having been written at Corbie in the Merovingian age (so before the later 700s):

  • Gregory of Tours, Historia Francorum I-VI (abridged; Paris, lat. 17655)
  • Pope St Gregory the Great, Homilies on Ezekiel (St Petersburg, Lat. Q v I 14).
  • A manuscript with Gennadius On Ecclesiastical Dogmas and select letters of St Jerome (St Petersburg Lat. Q v I 13)
  • Rule of St Basil (St Petersburg, Lat. F v I 2).
  • Gospel of Matthew (St Petersburg, Lat. O v I 3).
  • Gospel of Mark (St Petersburg, Lat. O v I 2).
  • A manuscript of Origen, On Balaam and Balak and John Chrysostom, De Reparatione lapsi (London, British Library, Burney 340 + St Petersburg, Lat. F v I 4)
  • St Augustine, On the Agreement of the Gospels (Paris, lat. 12190)
  • Jerome-Gennadius, On the Lives of Illustrious Men (Paris, lat. 12161)
  • Isidore of Seville, On Laws — Etymologies V 1-27, IX 4-6, 22, and Lex Romana Visigothorum (Paris, lat. 4403A)

Since St Isidore of Seville is sometimes considered the last of the western church Fathers, what we see them writing at Corbie is the Church Fathers and the Bible.

They also acquired some manuscripts from elsewhere:

  • A manuscript containing various works of St Augustine on grace, the Institutes of Nilus the MonkThe Rule of the Four Fathers, and The Rule of the Master (Paris, lat. 12205, sixth-century)
  • St Augustine, City of God books 1-10 (Paris, lat. 12214 + St Petersburg, Lat. Q v I 4, sixth-century)
  • A manuscript containing: Rufinus, De Fide; Fulgentius, De Fide Catholica: Origen on the Song of Songs; Jerome On the 42 mansions; Jerome To Demetrias (St Petersburg, Lat. Q v I 6-10)
  • A variety of works of St Augustine (Paris, lat. 13367, sixth-century)
  • Pope St Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job I.18-V.38 (Paris, Nouv. Acq. Lat. 2061).
  • Another patristic volume containing a selection of texts falsely attributed to St Cyprian as well as works of Tertullian, Chrysostom, Jerome, Augustine, Sedulius (Paris, lat. 13047)
  • St Augustine, Questions on the Heptateuch (Paris, lat. 12168)
  • Old Latin translation of the Gospels (Paris, lat. 17225).
  • Fragments of Ephrem the Syrian
  • Various saints lives
  • A volume with Isidore, Augustine, Chrysostom, Caesarius (Paris, lat. 14086)

Alongside these many patristic works they would add the Venerable Bede in the eighth century. Something to think about — I’ve blogged before about Bede as a church father.

What we see is that monks were reading the Fathers and reading the Bible. Bibles don’t survive as well, it seems. More specifically, they were reading Bible commentaries and books about the ascetic life.

This is not so different from the high medieval highlights from Durham I mentioned a while ago, is it?

And what is the lesson we gain from these old monkish books?

Ad fontes! What nourished these souls, alongside their rigorous regime of prayer, were the Scriptures and the Fathers. It was not the latest, newfangled spiritual teacher. It was not ’40 days to mountain-top experiences of God’. It was not the prosperity gospel. It was the austerity of asceticism, reading the Fathers, singing the Psalms, studying the Bible.