G K Chesterton, that famous penner of pithy wit, once remarked that some moderns were saying that Gothic architecture, with its towers and spires, was naught but a collection of phallic symbols. He challenged his opponents to build an upside-down cathedral. It’s impossible. Gothic architecture, he maintained, looks the way it does because that’s the most practical way to build a tall building – wide at the base, and skinny at the top.
Furthermore, may I add, the height is not there to make you think of penises. I’m sure this will come as a shock to many of my readers. But it is true! The height is there to draw your eyes heavenwards. To lift your gaze up and up and up. The sky is the heavens, and throughout the New Testament, the rule of God is referred to as the Kingdom of the Heavens. This metaphor is therefore…
Here is my sonnet for Saint Patrick’s day. It is in my anthology Word in the Wilderness and is also collected in Parable and Paradox but here it is for the day itself. This particular poem was prompted by my good friend Steve Bell who was writing a fascinating book on the seasons called The Pilgrim Year and who wanted me to write something for St. Patrick’s day. I can strongly commend Steve’s ebook!
While Patrick is of course primarily associated with Ireland where he flourished as a missionary in the second half of the fifth century, he was not Irish to begin with. He seems to have been a shepherd on the mainland of Great Britain and was in fact captured there, at the age of sixteen, by raiding pirates and taken across the sea to Ireland where he was sold as a slave. He was six years in captivity…
We come now to a feast of Ends and Beginnings! This Sunday is the last Sunday in the cycle of the Christian year, which ends with the feast of Christ the King, and next Sunday we begin our journey through time to eternity once more, with the first Sunday of Advent. We might expect the Feast of Christ the King to end the year with climactic images of Christ enthroned in Glory, seated high above all rule and authority, one before whom every knee shall bow, and of course those are powerful and important images, images of our humanity brought by him to the throne of the Heavens. But alongside such images we must also set the passage in Matthew (25:31-46) in which Christ reveals that even as He is enthroned in Glory, the King who comes to judge at the end of the ages, he is also the hidden King…
The 19th of November is the feast day of Abess Hilda of Whitby, and I am posting this poem in her honour a couple of days early so that those who wish to copy or use it in services or for personal prayer on the day can do so. Saint Hilda was great leader of the Church in England and the first patron of English Christian poetry. She also presided at the crucial and controversial Synod of Whitby and brought that Synod to a fruitful and peaceful conclusion. When I posted this sonnet on her feast day some years ago it happened that the church’s General Synod was meeting and I had that in mind as part of my prayerful remembrance of Hilda, as you will hear in the preamble to the recording of the poem.
This year its another aspect of her story I’d like to…
I have before my the Isaiah volume of The Church’s Bible, edited by Robert Louis Wilken, a commentary that uses the ancient and medieval sources as a guide to interpretation (like the more famous Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture but, in my opinion, easier to use/read). Here we read from St Jerome’s commentary:
In Hebrew there is some ambiguity whether the pronoun his refers to God or to each seraph. For this reason, it is difficult to determine whether the seraphim were covering their own faces and feet or whether they were covering the face and feet of God. (p. 69)
Jerome, in this instance, takes us back to where we started with Ambrose last time. He goes on to interpret the veiling of God’s face and feet in the same way that, had we continued with Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan also does:
This veiling indicates that we cannot know what happened in the past before the creation of the world and what will happen in the future after the end of the world. Don’t be surprised that some things are veiled to the seraphim, for the apostles revealed the Savior to those who believed, but hid him from unbelievers. Furthermore, there was a veil before the ark of the covenant. (p. 70)
We’ll take a quick look at what the authors in this commentary tell us about the beatific vision shortly…
I realise I’ve just mixed metaphors, but I hope you don’t mind. In response to my post about how I’m having trouble getting things rolling again, I got some good tips and refreshing perspectives. Keep the bike upright is one of them. As someone who cycles to work, I understand that. Momentum is necessary, you need to keep pedalling.
But how to keep pedalling?
Well, I need to realise that part of the martyrdom of parenthood is not having the free time to pray all the offices. But that’s okay — taking care of my son, my household, is an act of love, and is itself part of the disciplined life. Thus, a little twist on the Benedictines — ‘laborare est orare’.
As I’m working through what disciplines I can reasonably and prayerfully engage, I’m also reading Lisa Deam, A World Transformed. This book is ostensibly about the spirituality of medieval maps. But a lot of it is about pilgrimage, and the pilgrimage of the heart.
We are all headed to Jerusalem, to the heavenly city.
Along the way, we need to watch out for the many perils on the road. Robbers, thieves, hunger, thirst, cold, shipwreck when sailing from Venice, snow in the Alps. Unbelievers at the gates restricting our access. Medieval pilgrimage wasn’t all just a happy trek through Spain in the summer. It was death-defying and life-transforming.
I once walked two hours of a pilgrim route in Germany, to a little pilgrims’ chapel. As I walked, I realised that, while we think of these chapels and the destinations as defining pilgrimage, there is a lot of open countryside. That’s where you meet with God.
That’s where you meet with danger.
So here I am, on my pilgrimage, trying to make the pilgrimage of the heart to Jerusalem in the midst of finishing up one job, taking care of a feverish and sick one-year-old, preparing to take up another job, sorting out a transatlantic move. There are dangers everywhere on this road.
This is why setting in motion manageable goals of discipline is essential — prayer, Scripture, study.
“Dionysius adopts the doctrine of God as ‘nameless,’ ‘unknowable,’ and ‘beyond being’ from the Neoplatonic tradition established by Plotinus,” writes Eric Perl, “and his thought can be understood only in that context” (Theophany, p. 13). We will need to revisit Perl’s “only in that context.” The apophatic tradition of Eastern Christianity—embodied in the Divine Liturgy, stated in the writings of the Cappadocian Fathers and St Ephrem the Syrian (Dionysius was undoubtedly acquainted with both), and performed in monastic ascetical practice—should also be judged as the proper context for the interpretation of the Corpus Areopagaticum. We need to find a way to think together the metaphysical and ecclesial. But let’s follow along with Perl in his analysis of the Areopagite:
Dionysius expressly adopts the Parmenidean and Platonic account of being and thought as coterminous, and therefore locates God beyond both together: “For if all knowledges are of beings…