St Columba: Missionary, monk, poet

Today is the feast of St Columba, or Colm Cille, about whom I’ve blogged in the past. St Columba is rightly remembered for being a missionary who brought Christianity from Ireland to Scotland. He is also remembered as the founder of the abbey at Iona, which would be an active missionary centre for Scotland, northern England, and the Western Isles. He is less well-remembered as a poet, although I’ve made sure to blog some of his verse here.

I’ve been doing some writing and thinking about the relationship between monasticism and mission lately, and it struck me today, as I read Malcolm Guite’s reflections on encountering Columba on his journey to Christianity, that the monk-missionary-poet is maybe just what we need!

Monk

If you read Adomnan’s Life of St Columba, you see that the saint — or at least the idealised version of him seen by Adomnan — was truly a monk, truly single-minded in devotion to God. Not long ago, Carey Nieuwhof wrote a post (that I failed to bookmark) talking about the things the churches that makes it through the agonising death of Christendom will have.

I am pretty sure that the top priority will be: Monomaniacs for God in the pulpit, in the boardroom/vestry/kirk session/elders, in the pews.

The one thing every variety of monk is meant to be, whether alone in caves, living in little huts near each other, living in abbeys, living on pillars, living alone on islands in the North Sea, is a monomaniac for God. Like Columba.

Missionary

St Columba was not a hermit. He lived an ascetic lifestyle and finished up his earthly life as abbot of a monastery. But he preached the Good News that God came down from heaven on a rescue mission to save us. He was ready to preach and sought out opportunities.

Studies have shown that churches that are growing these days have at least one trait in common: Congregants tell their friends about Jesus and invite them to church.

Poet

Poetry is the reenchantment of the disenchanted universe through the medium of words. As we face head-on the post-Enlightenment universe we live in, almost everyone we meet will be a materialist, whether the kind who believes that matter is all that exists or the kind who believes that matter is all that matters.

As Christianity goes forward, poetry will be the vehicle for expressing the inexpressible, the joyous meaning of the Gospel, of worshipping the incomprehensible God. The Church that goes beyond proposition and treads the ground of mystery — this is the church that will survive.

It’s also the church of our ancient and medieval ancestors in the faith…

Anselm at the point of mystery

I realise I’m a week late for Trinity Sunday, but I read this in St Anselm’s Monologion last night, and I thought I’d share it here. It comes after Anselm goes as far as he can in using logic to prove and explain the Trinity (although I don’t think logic goes quite so far as he thinks). He writes:

This seems to me to be a sublime mystery, which stretches well beyond the horizon of human understanding. Therefore one ought, I think, to restrain the ambition to explain. When investigating the inexplicable, if it is possible to arrive at an account which is certainly correct, I think one must be content with that even if it is impossible to see how it may be so. There is no argument for disallowing P the certainty of faith where P is asserted as a necessitated and uncontradicted conclusion, but, because of its deep and incomprehensible nature, does not admit of explanation. And what, after all, is as incomprehensible, as ineffable, as that which is above everything else? So then, given that all our assertions so far on the subject of the supreme essence have been made on the basis of necessary reasoning, the fact that understanding cannot fathom so far as to explain them in words does nothing to undermine their certainty. (Ch. 64, trans. Simon Harrison in Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works)

Mystery

When my wife and I were visiting our family back in Canada at Christmastide, a significant number of us dined at Boston Pizza in Prince Albert, SK, one day for lunch. As we enjoyed the tasty delights of our pizza and endless refills of pop, my brother who is an Anglican priest (as opposed to my brother who is a comic-book encyclopaedist or my sister who is an editor), sitting across from me, declared, ‘No one writes mysteries anymore.’

‘What do you mean?’ I said. ‘P D James does. They’re pretty good.’ I flitted through my memory, noting that Conan Doyle, Chesterton, Sayers, and Christie are all, indeed, dead.

Then he said something along the lines of, ‘I mean no one writes actual mysteries. All people write are solutions. Everything has an explanation in what we write. People don’t write books that are about mysteries anymore.’

Something like that. It was longer, but it was also early January, so I forget. But the gist of what he and I exchanged in that moment at lunch was, indeed, that we don’t write mysteries.

If we meet a mystery, we want an explanation. We are uncomfortable with vast uncertainties, so we come up with systematic explanations of them so the mystery will go away. I recall that I pointed out that this was the key to Luther’s sacramental theology, that he did not believe in either transubstantiation or consubstantiation, yet certainly not the Zwinglian vision of a spiritual symbol. According to This Is My Body, these were all insufficient because they sought to explain with human philosophy what was ultimately a mystery to be left in reverence. Is means is. This is Christ’s body; this is Christ’s blood. End of story. Receive it in faith, do not explain it with philosophy.

God Himself(s) is a mystery as well. No matter how well an Aquinas or a Bonaventure can go into the relations of the Divine Persons, the very doctrine of the Trinity remains always beyond reach. And that is mere doctrine; FatherSonHolySpirit Themself stands beyond us in a big way.

Yet he does invite us in.

A mystery is not simply hidden. It is a hidden thing, or a hard-to-understand thing, that invites us in. We are called to go further and further in. This is how it is related to mystery cults, religions that involve secret initiation ceremonies that unite their worshippers with a god in some way. God invites us in, and we are drawn further into his mystery as we go through life with Him.

Thus the mystic enters the mystery of the Triune God through prayer, ascetic practice, meditation, contemplation, worship, sacrament, daily work, and daily life, finding These Person everywhere and pervading everything. St. Hildegard and Lady Julian are granted visions; St. Thomas Aquinas is given insight; St. Gregory Palamas enters the mystery of God and finds Him beyond articulation. Evagrius Ponticus says that contemplation of the HolyThree is the highest goal of the Christian life.

And the more we know El, the more we realise how little we know of This OneThree Who isare everywhere yet beyond everything.

And so, having delineated the boundaries of what it is safe to say in our tomes of systematic theology, having uttered the Creed with utter sincerity, having sought to see the Creator God in the face of the poor, we reach a place where only groans can express these thoughts.

We enter the cloud of unknowing, having ascended Mt. Sinai.

The apophatic takes over.

The DivinePerson(s) — ‘God’ as we like to call ‘Him’ — is without beginning and without end. Temporally and spatially.

Is not human.

Is not made of matter.

Is invisible.

Is unchangeable.

Is unchanging.

Is uncaused.

Is immortal.

Is a variety of things of which we can only really say what He is not.

He is a(3) Person(s) and ready to for us to encounter, love, and experience Him.

Are we ready to enter into this glorious mystery? Or shall we play in the shallows of definites and clear answers instead?