The Silent Ecumenism of the Mystical Tradition

Antony the Great, ascetic par excellence; detail from a 14th-15th-century painting of the BVM with saints in the Capitoline Museum
Antony the Great, ascetic par excellence; detail from a 14th-15th-century painting of the BVM with saints in the Capitoline Museum

In his 2006 article for First Things, ‘Europe and Its Discontents’, Pope Benedict XVI lists those things that united mediaeval Europe, East and West — Christianity, a belief in being successors of Rome, and monasticism. Of the last he writes:

The last factor I would mention is monasticism, which throughout the great upheavals of history continued to be the indispensable bearer not only of cultural continuity but above all of fundamental religious and moral values, of the ultimate guidance of humankind. As a pre-political and supra-political force, monasticism was also the bringer of ever-welcome and necessary rebirths of culture and civilization.

Benedict is writing here from the perspective of society and culture, of course. And I cannot deny the major importance that the monastic and ascetic movement has had and still has across Europe. This paragraph makes me also think, however, of a phrase Diarmaid MacCulloch used in one of the lectures of his ‘History of Silence’: The silent (or quiet?) ecumenism of mysticism (or asceticism?).

As you can see, I don’t quite remember the quotation exactly (I’m notorious for that). Nonetheless, the point comes across.

Whatever differences may exist between power structures of western and eastern Christianity, whatever variations amongst our respective liturgical inheritances, whatever divergences in dogma and formal, confessional teaching of doctrine, the ascetic and mystical tradition of Christianity finds its common source in the Prophet Elijah and St John the Baptist as well as the wellsprings of the Egyptian, Syrian, and Judaean deserts — and its different streams taste remarkably similar.

It is my experience, at least, that the main differences between the Eastern Orthodox/Byzantine/Russian spiritual writers and those from the west (primarily Catholic or Mediaeval) are of emphasis, but they are united in their experience of God. They are also united in their promotion of the disciplines of prayer, fasting, almsgiving, contemplation — while steering us clear of illuminism. The goal of all of this, this entry into the Interior Castle (to borrow the term from St Teresa of Ávila), is to encounter the Giver, not His gifts.

And all of them (much to the chagrin of the Reformed) will speak in terms that are best understood by the word synergy. That the encounter with God, the quest for purity and the contemplation of the Most Holy Trinity requires everything of us, requires much effort and labour on our part. Yet it comes, in the end, only because of the grace God. It is wholly dependent on God, yet we are required to seek to purify ourselves so that God will purify us. We are told to seek His face so that He will show it. I am thinking here of St Theophan the Recluse and St John Cassian, one at the end of the Russian tradition, the other at the beginning of the western.

Perhaps, then, Christians should spend more time praying together and more time praying alone. And then, having encountered the Most Holy Trinity Who is Himselves a Communion of Persons, we can find greater communion with each other.

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Reformation Day!

The Posting of Luther's 95 Theses by Julius Hübner, 1878
The Posting of Luther’s 95 Theses by Julius Hübner, 1878

It has become fashionable in some Protestant circles to poo-poo the Reformation or focus only upon its less impressive aspects and results, intended and unintended. And while I certainly mourn the destruction of beautiful Gothic abbeys and, indeed, the suppression of monasticism at large (why not Reformed reformed Benedictine orders?), as well as the unintended splintering of Protestants into a million factions with millions of individualist popes, I would like to focus on the positive aspects of the Reformation in this post. No matter how uncomfortable you may be with things people did in the name of the Reformation (like killing Carthusian monks), if you’re not Roman Catholic or from any of the Orthodox branches of Christianity, you are a child of this movement.

It’s time, then, to focus on the positive, as I said. And I mean positive in two respects. First, of course, aspects of which I approve. Second, however, things about being Protestant that are not simply un-Catholic or anti-Rome. I know I have some Roman Catholic readership — this post is not meant to cast shadows on your expression of the Christian faith but for me to take a moment and celebrate my own:

  • Sola fide. Justification by faith alone is one of the central tenets of Protestant faith, whether Lutheran, Anglican, Baptist, or places even more radical. This is not the doctrine that it is often derided as being, of course. The foundation for this belief is the recognition that none of our acts can gain merit or favour in the sight of God and thereby our salvation — not even what Late Mediaeval thinkers call ‘condign merit’, where God pretends that our deeds have merit but, really, they don’t. The grace of God alone saves us, and we gain that grace simply through faith in accepting it. Faith means trusting in God, Christ, and the Spirit to save us and make us holy. It does not mean becoming a couch potato Christian with no room for good works. Some of the most robust believers in sola fide have also been some of the most austere Calvinists, so that image is a false appropriation of the teaching (that, sadly, occurs).
  • Sola scriptura. I’ve blogged about this before from the perspective of how I view tradition’s role in the life of the Christian. I take the Anglican line on the Holy Scriptures — they contain everything necessary for salvation. Nothing not in the Scriptures can be imposed on Christians out of necessity. Now, I say that as a consciously conciliar Christian, so how can I reconcile these two facts? I would argue that the Seven Ecumenical Councils are the working out of teachings that can be proven from Scripture — including icons, since the justification for them is rooted in John 1 and a robust, biblical faith in the Incarnation. In tandem with this, I still believe in the importance of tradition for a vibrant and lively faith life.
  • Worship in the language of the people. Now, I know that post-Vatican 2 Roman Catholicism has English-French-Spanish-Tagalog-what-have-you liturgies. Nonetheless, for 400 years, if a western Christian wanted liturgy in the local language, he or she would have to turn to the Protestants. For Anglophones, the English Bible is also coupled with Reformation (not so for other European languages, as it turns out). The heart of the faith, as expressed in the words of Scripture and tradition available in the Bible and the Prayer Book, is meant to be available to all; this is part of the idea of Common Prayer. This fact also gave part of the educational impetus of Protestants such as John Knox — people have to be literate to read the Bible.
  • Direct access to the Scriptures. Yes, Christ is available to us most especially through the sacraments, and reading the Bible alone in a room is not the same thing at all. But we believe that private reading of Scripture can be blessed and moved by the Holy Spirit in a vigorous way regardless of the official structures of the Church. Pope Benedict XVI, on the other hand, says that the Christian who reads Scripture apart from the magisterium has cut himself off from the authoritative and prophetic voice of the Spirit and cannot rightly interpret the text (as discussed by Miroslav Volf in After Our Likeness). I acknowledge the danger of this approach and wonder if perhaps some middle ground between Protestant muddles and Roman Catholic authority would be best?
  • Married clergy. As the son of a priest, I cannot stress the importance of married clergy enough. 😉 I also believe that married clergy are an important part of the gradual Protestant freeing up of women in the Church. The married priest (and, in Presbyterian circles, Elder) has a woman’s voice in his life — her voice thus enters into the life of the ministry of the Church. Without getting into the thorny issue of women’s ordination, the Protestant woman has had a place of ministry and felt part of the church’s work long before she had access to the priesthood. Again, married clergy = me and my siblings and my dad and his siblings and my cousin (my uncle’s a bishop) and my nieces & nephew (my brother’s a priest) and my granny and my great-granny. My family wouldn’t exist without married clergy.
  • The rebirth of expository preaching. This, I think, is something that ‘Counter-Reformation’ Catholics and Protestants shared, considering the fame of the gospel preaching of some of the Capuchins. So it’s more Reformational than simply Protestant, if we think of reform as cutting across those boundaries. Anyway, I like a good, meaty, expository sermon. Not a big, long-winded one. Nor a short but piquant one. Something that helps open the Scriptures. This is a tradition that, sadly, had dwindled in average parish preaching by the 1500s. Both Protestant and Roman Catholic Reformers helped bring it back into an important place within the local community’s life and worship.

These are just a few of the good results of the 16th-century Protestant Reformation — and one or two that also spill over into the Roman Catholic ‘Counter-Reformation’ (it has been argued to drop the ‘counter’ from the term and simply say ‘Catholic Reformation’), even if they had to wait a few centuries for vernacular liturgy. I am sometimes tempted by the Eastern Orthodox, and a Tridentine Liturgy moves me powerfully, and we all know how I feel about San Marco, Venice — but I’m still a Protesant.

Episcopal (papal and otherwise) retirements as opportunities

The big news of last week was not that I was in Florence, as it turns out. Rather, the big news was that the Bishop of Rome, Pope Benedict XVI (aka Joseph Ratzinger) announced his resignation, effective 28 February. This comes only a few months after the retirement of his fellow academic-turned-bishop Rowan Williams. Both of these are moments of opportunity for the historic Roman Catholic and Anglican churches.

Will they take these opportunities?

Both men have been alternately loved and hated by those of whom they were to be the spiritual leaders. Both are writers of academic theology that many find deeply powerful and strong, even when they disagree. Both have left behind churches divided by ‘liberal/progressive’ movements in a declining West and a burgeoning ‘conservative/traditional’ movement in the Global South.

Anglicanism in its home countries has lost its way in many respects. Obsessed at times with issues of sexual ethics, not dealing with proper, outright heresy, losing sight of the Gospel many times in many places with declining numbers that different routes of ‘relevant’ are being touted as the solution — whether it is jettisoning the BCP or liturgy altogether or having a U2charist or putting left-wing art on the sides of the churches or reciting ‘alternative creeds’ or turning church buildings into community centres or adding a rock band to the liturgy … and so forth.

Will Welby be able to hold together the vast, spinning network of ideologies that is the Anglican Communion, or will the final ruptures come about in his episcopate? We shall see.

Roman Catholicism has, under B16, has introduced a needed update of the Missal that was sadly unintelligible in many parts, but also engaged in a proactive campaign of Bible accessibility and translation for the masses at the Masses. The New Evangelisation has continued. But there are still the paedophilia scandals, the emptying churches, the awkward 1970s music at ‘modern’ Masses, potential money-laundering scandals in the Vatican — plus a litany of Protestant concerns still unaddressed satisfactorily since the 1500s.

Both communions, that is, have issues. And so new leadership is always a moment of hopefulness and concern.

Let us pray for Justin Welby when he takes on his new role. And let us pray for the conclave when they meet to elect a new Bishop of Rome at the end of this month — whether you think the Pope is the Anti-Christ or not, the Church of Rome needs your prayers!

May both communions rediscover, far and wide, the dangerous and glorious Gospel of God’s dramatic rescue of the human race through His incarnate Son, Jesus. And may they worship him righteously. And may they, fuelled by His worship, bring that dangerous and glorious Gospel to a lost and dying world that greatly needs it!

May God grant wisdom to the new bishops, then. And may the New Evangelization focus primarily on Gospel and Jesus and only secondarily  missals and liturgies and culture wars.