Anselm’s prayers as meditations

Image of an Archbishop from Anselm’s Prayers and Meditations found in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Auct. D. 2. 6 (12th c)

One thing that my contact with ancient, medieval, Byzantine, and Orthodox Christianity has not done away with is my mistrust of the cult of saints. I am not interested in asking the blessed departed to intercede with God on my behalf. This creates a potential problem for me and other Protestant types in reading St Anselm’s prayers, since the bulk of them are addressed to saints.

Now, the scholarly solution, and one I endorse, is to read these as specimens of Christianity from another age. Ask the texts what they show us about high mediaeval spirituality. Ask also how they interact with St Anselm’s other work, the theology and spirituality of his contemporaries such as his mentor Lanfranc or younger contemporary Hugh of St Victor. I commend that historical task to you always, whenever you read Christian authors from a different time, for it can help bridge the gap and enliven their spirituality (and therefore your own as a result!).

But if we can use the Prayer to Christ as a means to stir up our hearts to Jesus, how can we read the prayers to saints devotionally?

I can think of two ways we can use St Anselm’s prayers to the saints devotionally. One is to use his meditations on theology that are embedded within the prayers as spurs to our own prayers and meditations. The other is to consider the virtues of the saints whom he addresses.

I prefer the first.

When we do so, we realise how stark an awareness of one’s own sin the mediaeval Christian had:

If I look within myself, I cannot bear myself;
if I do not look within myself, I do not know myself.
If I do consider myself, what I see terrifies me;
if I do not consider myself, I fall to my damnation.
If I look at myself, it is an intolerable horror;
if I do not look at myself, death is unavoidable.
Evil here, worse there, ill on every side;
but there is too much evil here,
too much that is worse there,
too much ill on every side. (Prayer to St John the Baptist, trans. B. Ward, p. 130-31)

Such thoughts run through the prayers — one of St Anselm’s concerns is that God is both judge and plaintiff — how can he stand? Condemnation is his lot. This gloomy vision of human sin and wickedness would probably be considered pathological by modern psychology. Maybe it was. Then again, maybe Anselm had it right. Maybe Know Thyself (a theme I’ve discussed before) leads directly to this awareness. And this awareness leads you directly to Christ:

God, whose goodness is not exhausted,
whose mercy is not emptied out,
whose knowledge does not fail,
whose power can effect what you will;
whence shall I ever be able to get back life,
who have thus been driven desperate by my sins?
For if you are angry against sinners,
at least, kind Lord, you are accustomed to give counsel
to those who plead with you.
Teach me, O Lord, whence I ought to hope,
so that I can pray.
For I long to pray to you;
but I neither know how because of my ignorance,
nor am I able to because of my hardness.
And I am forbidden to do it by despair because of my sins. …

Jesus, good Lord,
why did you come down from heaven,
what did you do in the world,
to what end did you give yourself over to death,
unless it was that you might save sinners?
St Paul, what did you teach
when you were passing through the world?
God, and his apostles, and you most of all,
invite us sinners to faith;
you show us this as our only safe refuge.
How then should I not hope, if I believe this,
and ask in this faith?
How can this hope be frustrated in me,
if that faith does not fail me
from which it was born? (Prayer to St Paul, pp. 145-6)

I hope that if you are interested in reading the Prayers and Meditations these meditations of mine may help you use St Anselm to deepen your own devotional life.

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Evangelicals and Tradition: The Saints

Polycarp

Back to my Cypriot seminars. When we look at tradition as it moves along, various developments inevitably occur. We need to test each of these developments against the core of tradition in the Canon of the Faith as well as against Scripture. Some things will be helpful for us as individuals or churches; some will be indifferent; others are to be rejected.

I believe the tradition of honouring our forebears in the faith is reasonable; we do it today to living heroes such as Billy Graham or past ones such as Martin Luther and John Calvin. We see this going on in the mid-second century when Polycarp, a man who had known the Apostle John, was killed by the Roman authorities in Smyrna. The Christians buried his bones and commemorated his life and teachings ever after. We see the same going on with Perpetua and Felicity a bit later in Carthage around the year 200. This sort of practice continued and is evident in Kyprianos of Carthage’s letters in the 250s when the Emperor Decius systematically sought to stamp out Christianity.

However, at some stage, the commemoration of faithful believers went beyond this, and we have the poetry of Paulinos, Bishop of Nola, who was a contemporary of Augustinos’ in the late 300s. He wrote poems to St. Felix, an early Christian martyr, referring to Felix as his friend and offering up prayers to Felix. We also see at this time the emergence of relics and shrines as sites of healings. Missionaries were being sent out in the late 300s accompanied by the relics of martyrs and other holy Christians of prior days to take with them. These are traditions that may have roots in the 200s but which are becoming clearer in the 300s — although various people questioned such action well into the 600s.

Furthermore, although someone like Paulinos of Nola may be a big fan of praying to St Felix, most Christian piety well into the 500s and beyond is focussed on Jesus; it is Jesus most documented Christians pray to most often; it is Jesus who is the centre of the liturgies of these periods; it is Jesus who is even, very often, the focus of the lives of the saints. He is the centre of devotion, even at the time when the prayers to the saints were starting to develop and grow in popularity. This praying to the saints is, I believe as a good Anglican, a derailment of a tradition that developed as a way of encouraging persecuted Christians and remembering the teachings of those who have gone before. However, it should not keep us from reading the so-called ‘Lives of the Saints’ in hagiography. I have read many, many saints’ lives, and sometimes they are silly, but sometimes there is a flash of insight into true virtue or prayer or worship or the character of God that I would have missed because I do not believe in praying to saints.

At all times, the tricky parts of the multitudinous traditions should be held up against the core of the tradition and against Scripture. Are they in conformity to this? Do they draw people nearer to Christ? Do they detract from the true worship of God? Even if a text, such as a saint’s life like the late fifth-century Life of Daniel the Stylite, is not necessarily entirely historically accurate, can God show us things through the example and life of Daniel?

When we approach ancient texts in this way, we can sort through the silly or false parts and find some gems. For there are gems to be found in ancient Christianity, and they are worth finding. For me, the gems have been found in the teachings about the person of Christ and the Trinity, as discussed on Thursday, as well as in the worship and prayer practices of the ancient Church, which have helped me appreciate the holy God of the Bible even more and drawn me nearer to him and helped me in my own times of daily devotion. We must learn to sift through the oddities so as to live with the gems which greatly outweigh the oddities and hard parts, if we are willing to read with an open spirit.

Catacombs and Controversy

Orans or ‘Pray-er’ in the Catacombs

I’m not an art historian, as this post that still leaves me dissatisfied will show. But I do like art and architecture and sometimes even have coherent thoughts about them. This coherence is typified in my posts about Gothic art and architecture here and here. Part of what makes Gothic architecture easier to write about is the fact that it comes with a guidebook, almost. When Abbot Suger redesigned St. Denis, he wrote all about it.

This clarity is not the case for much early Christian art.

And today, I had to lead a tutorial seminar on the Catacombs of Rome, which lack much clarity and coherence because they were first excavated during the Reformation and were thus marshalled for the ‘Counter-‘ or ‘Catholic’ Reformation as Anti-Protestant/Iconoclast propaganda. Today, the Vatican still controls access to these subterranean lands full of wonderful images, thus making it harder to re-evaluate them based upon new techniques and better knowledge of the early history and art of Christianity from other sources (such as Dura Europos).

The propaganda value of the Catacombs comes from attempts to proclaim all of the art Christian and all of it pre-Constantinian. This often comes coupled with the belief that the Christians lived and hid in the Catacombs during times of persecution. The idea is that if you can prove a major role for bishops and the Bishop of Rome before Constantine, as well as the centrality of martyr (ie. saints’) cults in Ante-Nicene Christianity, as well as the prominence of Christian figural art including images of Christ before Nicaea, you can prove to Iconoclast Protestants who want to separate from Rome and abolish the cult of the saints that they are treading a fine line with overturning early stages of the very tradition that gave us the Scriptures.

However, I do not believe that you need to espouse this 16th-century propaganda to be Roman Catholic — not that I’m a Roman Catholic. The newer interpretations of the Catacombs are that they are subterranean necropoleis like those of other Mediterranean cities and that they housed the corpses Christians, Jews, and pagans. This view explains why there are so many pagan motifs in the art down there (you’d think it would be welcome to the Roman authorities).

Catacomb Banquet

Although such a view leads to re-dating some art as well as proclaiming other art pagan, the art that seems to date from the mid-third century still has many of the major Catacomb motifs — banquet scenes, Bible stories, Christ the Good Shepherd on the ceiling, fish, chi-rhos, and the like. Thus, arguments for Ante-Nicene figural images can still stand against Iconoclastic opponents.

Of course, when the material is re-dates, there is some trouble with the fact that none of the crosses or crucifixions pre-dates the fifth century. But this merely makes the Catacombs like every other place with Christian art. Christians were very slow to go about publically painting and carving crosses. My hunch is that in a culture where people are actually crucified, it’s still too raw; Christians have to spend enough time working through the shame as it is, as evidenced in Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho.

I think the lack of crosses also points to the purpose of the art. While it’s likely that some Christian martyrs were buried there, no evidence exists for regular Church services down there, apart (one imagines) from martyrs’ festivals. The Bible stories tend to be images of people being saved, not of Christ’s salvific act. They are reminders of the hope all Christians hold.

Good Shepherd, ceiling of cubiculum in Catacomb of Priscilla

Another idea countered by younger scholars is that every banquet scene in the Catacombs is Eucharist. Since some of them are pagan, this need not be so. They could be images of the heavenly banquet; they could be images of the banquets Romans (Christians included) held at the tombs of loved ones on the anniversary of their death; they could be images the Christian love-feast. Who knows?

Alas, however, these views are hard to find, as an art historian/archaeologist friend was explaining today over coffee. Since access to these sites is so closely controlled, and the official line so loudly proclaimed, it is hard to find a book that will break the silence and tell the truth in all its messiness and with all its uncertainties.

But I like the image of the Catacombs as common cemeteries where Christians told their stories in frescoes, even if they are not always the stories we expect. It adds another angle to the evidence provided by the also scant but much more numerous documentary evidence that I usually deal with.

John of Damascus, Martin Luther, and Monstrances (Pt 2)

Where does Part 1 land me?

I am a self-professing Anglican who currently worships at a Reformed church. I have found, for a long time, that I tend fall in line with the 39 Articles of Religion. However, ever since I worshipped at a Tridentine Mass, things have been moving in … different directions; and the Orthodox have not really moved those directions back towards low-church Protestantism.

I remember the day I started to make a mental break with the 39 Articles for the first time. It was at St. Thomas’ Church in Toronto (aka Smokey Tom’s), and we were worshipping in Latin according to the Use of Sarum. You can read some of my thoughts from that event here and here. Various un-Reformation things occurred besides not worshipping in a language such as the people understandeth (vs. Article 24). They also bowed to the Sacrament (vs. Article 28). There were prayers to saints (vs. Article 22). But, dangnabbit, it was beautiful!

And so I reconsidered how tightly we should hold to the Articles of Religion, even though I tend to see adherence to the Tradition as the safest way to avoid falling into the Pit of Heresy. I am still of a mind that Article 24 is of great importance for regular Sunday worship. But some of these others … I am becoming ‘iffy’ or noncommittal or ‘agnostic’ as to whether they are as important for faith as once I thought.

Furthermore, regarding avoiding the Pit of Heresy, for a long time many Anglicans, from the Welseys onward if not earlier, have not held to Article 16, ‘Of Predestination and Election.’ As well, many others go against Article 37 that embraces Just War Theory. And I’m not sure how long certain Anglo-Catholics have been bowing before monstrances and invoking saints, but certainly longer than I’ve been alive. So there seems to be a grand tradition of ignoring inconvenient Articles of Religion. Nonetheless … nonetheless …

Back to John of Damascus, Martin Luther, and Monstrances, then.

First, I have been having my Eucharistic thought-life shaped by the Fathers for  a while now, and this year many of my patterns for thinking have been if not challenged by the Fathers, nuanced and immersed in the Fathers due to my own immersion in them, from Justin to Leo, Ignatius to Chrysostom, Severus to Maximus to John of Damascus.

Second, I have actually been reading the ipsissima verba of Reformers, and Luther with greater pleasure than the Reformed side (inevitable, I guess).

And once a week(ish), I step through a little black door with a bronze Russian cross on it, light a candle, then kiss an icon of Christ Pantokrator, and icon of the BVM, and an icon of St. Andrew. I cross myself numerous times and bow whenever the incense comes by.

These things stand in the trajectory of my life post-Latin Mass.

I am now able to comfortably kiss objects, having soaked in the teachings of St. John of Damascus. There is no Article of Religion against this. However, he has made it easier for me to bow to the Eucharistic elements. We have seen this in the last post; given that I have moved to a Lutheran understanding of the Eucharist, this is even easier for me.

Thus, Articles of Religion I am non-committal on as of now:

  • Article 17: Of Predestination and Election: This is a long-standing issue of mine; I dance back and forth re predestination/free will. And St. Augustine only confused the matter.
  • Article 22: Of Purgatory, thus: ‘Worshipping and Adoration, as well of Images as of Reliques … is a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.’
  • Article 25: Of the Sacraments, thus: ‘The Sacraments were not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon, or to be carried about …‘ While I believe that chiefly, they are best used in … use … I am not so hard-core re not gazing upon or carrying them about.
  • Article 28: Of the Lord’s Supper is a trickier one, because the entire first paragraph is precisely what Luther has demonstrated to me, and I’ve never believed transubstantiation no matter what Innocent III says. But I do not wish to go so far as to say, ‘The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner.’ This makes me think of one man, and his name starts with Z. It also reiterates the bit I’m unsure of from Article 25 against reserve sacrament, carrying it about, lifting it up, worshipping it.
  • Article 27: Of the Civil Magistrates, thus: ‘It is lawful for Christian men, at the commandment of the Magistrate, to wear weapons, and serve in the wars.’ I’m not sure if I’m entirely comfortable with this, but I’m willing to let it stand at present.

The upshot is, at one level, that it’s not 1563 or 1662 anymore. Issues of praxis that were very important to the English reformers are less important today. But this is a foundational document. How can we say that we are within the Anglican tradition if we start pulling out Articles of Religion willy-nilly because people like me have grown iffy in our compliance with them?

I ask because this makes me some sort of monster, a creature with no nature proper to itself but which may fit in with nature as a whole (cf. John Philoponus, In Phys.). There are people who are uncomfortable with the Nicene Creed because they claim it’s just a lot of Hellenistic philosophy (vs. Article 8). There are people who think science has proven miracles — including the Resurrection — false (vs. Article 4). Some think the Holy Trinity not actually scriptural (vs. Article 1). Some are actual Pelagians (vs. Article 9). Many believe in a real free-will (vs. Articles 10 & 17). I know of some who believe in Purgatory, icons, relics, invocations of saints (vs. Article 22). Some engage in Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament (vs. Article 28).

There is no body of thought or persons that says which Articles of Religion are ‘essential’. Anyone who has tried keeps getting censured by the voices of the official bodies of the Anglican Communion or their local Provinces. What makes an Anglican? Whatever you please?

But whatever it is, am I it anymore?

The “Cult” of the Cross?

Fresco of Crucifixion at Kolossi Castle, Cyprus

I have previously posted here about the Cult of the Cross (here, here, and here).  What do we mean by cult?

We do not mean a fringe religious group or behaviour or brainwashing or heterodox community of persons.  That is an entirely different definition of cult although both come from the Latin word cultus.

For our purposes, we will consider the cult to be the devotional aspects of something, including feasts, liturgies, meditations, art, poetry, relics, legends, and other spiritual practices.  When we discuss the “Cult of the Saints”, for example, we do not mean simply the lives of the Saints or the doctrine of the Communion of Saints that there is a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us and worshipping at the foot of the Sapphire Throne in the Heavens.  The Cult of the Saints includes hagiography, prayers about and to saints, relics, art, liturgies, feasts, and so on and so forth.

The Cult of the Cross, especially, does not include what we call “theology.”  This is not because theology has nothing to say about the Cross; indeed, a large portion of the reasoned discussion of God’s Revelation to us and action in History is devoted to the Cross.  Furthermore, there is a lot interplay between the Theology of the Cross and the Cult of the Cross.  When each is operating as it should, they have blessed and beneficial interactions.  And the devotional masters, many of whom have contributed to the Cult of the Cross, are not divorced from the theologians’ task.  Many of them have been theologians.  The great liturgists, pray-ers, preachers, and ascetics of the Patristic world were also its great theologians.*

However, the Theology of the Cross is the application of the human mind with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to the salvific action of God the Son on the Cross at Golgotha.  Normally, it expressly does not take the actual, True Cross and make it the focus of the discourse.  The Cult of the Cross does, the focus always being a symbolic focus, always pointing to the God-Man upon the Cross.

Often the Cult of the Cross actually manifests itself as the Cult of the Crucifixion or the Cult of the Crucified.  Here Theology and Cult will more frequently intersect.

If you think I’m way off base in terms of what cult is, let me know.

*This fact should give us pause when we consider modern academic theology.