Pentecost: ‘A fire goes before Him and burns up all his enemies’

The destructive force of fire at Fort McMurray

On Sunday, the minister preached about fire, about the Holy Spirit as fire, recalling some of the famous biblical images of fire, such as Elijah’s chariot of fire (2 Kings 2), the fire burning in the hearts of the disciples at Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35),  and the ‘fire’ of love that the Holy Spirit kindles in our hearts. I do not dispute any of what was said, nor its significance. Nonetheless, I was drawn to fire of a different sort.

When I was a teenager, the song ‘The Lord Reigns‘ by Bob Fitts was very popular amongst youth in the Anglican Diocese of Calgary. One of the verses runs:

A fire goes before him
And burns up all His enemies
The hills they melt like wax at the presence of the Lord

If we think on the Psalms that inspired that song, such as Psalm 97, the allegorical reading of the Psalms as described by John Cassian (d. 430s; see my posts Killing Enemies & Bashing Babies on Rocks: Reading the Difficult Psalms, Pt. 1 and Pt. 2) allows us, as Christians, to consider the enemies in question as not human but spiritual (like the Babylonian babies in Psalm 137:9) — sins, vices, demons. The enemies that the Lord’s fire consumes are within us; in the language of Cassian’s spiritual master, Evagrius of Pontus, these are logismoi; they are also the passions when disordered — but most importantly, they are sin when the logismoi and disordered passions incarnate themselves in our actions.

My thoughts were next drawn to the words of another song from my Albertan Anglican youth, by fellow Canadian Brian Doerksen, ‘Refiner’s Fire‘. I loved this song back in the 90s, and I still agree with its sentiment and the cry of the charismatic heart from which it issued. In Doerksen’s words, thousands of us have prayed for God to purify our hearts, to make us holy, to cleanse us from our sin (deep within) — using the image of a refiner’s fire, to make us pure like gold and precious silver.

I can only imagine that a refiner’s fire, and the crucible that rests in it, must be very, very hot.

And painful.

One of the facts about fire that was brought forth on Sunday is its destructive force, as in the recent wildfires in northern Alberta, most notably at Fort McMurray. We have all seen images in the past few weeks of these fires in action, and now photos of the devastation are starting to come in.

Doerksen’s prayer never made me uncomfortable when I was a teenager. Often, but neither always nor everywhere, the charismatic movement has been more interested in such purification as being comforting, as the warmth you feel in moments of ecstatic contemplation. And it can be. And it is.

But not always.

My readings in the ascetic and mystical tradition as an adult have made me realise that if we wish to enter a crucible (refiner’s fire) so as to emerge as gold (pure gold), or if we want, to quote another song from the Vineyard, ‘more love, more power, more of [God] in my life’, we will struggle for it — the dross wishes to remain. Our sin, the disorder of fallen passions, and the temptations of logismoi fight back at every turn. The daily battle with temptation and long, slow progress in holiness prove this.

None of this is to say that my minister and the charismatics are wrong. Rather, it is to see the purifying flame of the Holy Spirit from a different angle. One of the Desert Fathers says that prayer is struggle to your last breath. Another says that if you are not being tempted, this is because you are already sinning. The modern Athonite mystic Archimandrite Sophrony of Essex (d. 1993) says, in His Life is Mine, that living as a Christian will always mean struggle.

Our hearts are fickle. We need the fire of the Holy Spirit to come and destroy the Lord’s enemies in our lives; we need the fire of the Holy Spirit to come and melt us and burn away the dross in our hearts. And this will hurt as the Spirit burns away our tendencies towards gluttony, greed, sloth, sorrow, lust, anger, vainglory, and pride (to cite Evagrius’ and Cassian’s Eight Deadly Thoughts/logismoi, later shifted into Seven Deadly Sins by Gregory the Great).

Truly becoming holy will require struggle as we stand guard over our hearts. The fifth-century Egyptian monk St Isaiah the Solitary writes:

I entreat you not to leave your heart unguarded, so long as you are in the body. Just as a farmer cannot feel confident about the crop growing in his fields, because he does not know what will happen to it before it is stored away in his granary, so a man should not leave his heart unguarded so long as he still has breath in his nostrils. Up to his last breath he cannot know what passion will attack him; so long as he breathes, therefore, he must not leave his heart unguarded, but should at every moment pray to God for His help and mercy. -Ch. 15 of ‘On Guarding the Intellect: Twenty-Seven Texts’, in The Philokalia Vol. 1, p. 25, trans. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware.

It will require struggle.

But it will be Good.

This is the path to holiness and freedom, and the Holy Spirit will not only purge but warm — the Paraclete will come alongside us to comfort us. As Theophan the Recluse (d. 1894) reminds us, while we need to do this work ourselves, it is precisely in the Spirit’s power that we are able to do it. Therefore, let us be of good cheer as we prepare for the coming of the Holy Spirit to burn up all the Lord’s enemies and purify our hearts this Pentecost season. Yes, this burning flame will hurt — but it is the pain of a doctor curing a wound. We must not let desire for comfort and a life of cheap grace stand in the way of holiness and life abundant.

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St Basil the Great, ‘On the Holy Spirit’ (for Pentecost!)

On the Holy SpiritOn the Holy Spirit by Basil the Great

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have read this treatise twice, once in the older, Anglo-Catholic Victorian translation, and once (most recently) in this translation. This book is the classic exposition of why we can call the Holy Spirit ‘God’. St Basil begins with a liturgical complaint, which he deals with using all of his grammatical skills, then moves along to demonstrate through the Scriptures using logic as well as the life of the Church, why it is that we can call the Holy Spirit ‘God’ alongside God the Father and God the Son.

In today’s milieu, unless you’re a Oneness Pentecostal or a Mormon or a Jehovah’s Witness or a Christadelphian, the divinity of the Holy Spirit is practically a non-issue. And, in the decades since the Charismatic Renewal came upon mainline Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, the logic parsing and proof-hunting St Basil provides here will seem pointless to many living believers. I would imagine that most people today think of the Trinity in economic terms, so they would approach a book entitled, ‘On the Holy Spirit’ expecting a long discourse on the role of the Spirit in Christians’ lives and church history. That figures only a little in this book.

Read it anyway

The divinity of God the Holy Spirit is an integral part of orthodox Christian faith. St Basil of Caesarea wrote this text at a time when many people were doubting this Person of the Trinity’s equality and consubstantiality with the other two Persons. We need to be reminded, day by day, Who Is the God we worship, and why we express that belief in certain ways. As far as that is concerned, there are few guides better than St Basil when we ponder, ‘Well, we’ve settled the whole, “God is Jesus” thing fairly well. Why do we think the Spirit is God as well?’

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A (pre-schism) western hymn for Orthodox Pentecost

It’s not cheeky if it’s pre-schism, right? 😉 The following hymn, ‘Now Christ had mounted to the stars’ (Iam Christus astra ascenderat) comes from ‘New Hymnal’, which is a Carolingian replacement of the ‘Old Hymnal’. These hymnals originated from the incorporation of hymns at the canonical hours being incorporated into the Benedictine office.

The New Hymnal took the Old Hymnal’s place everywhere during the course of the 800s and 900s, save in Milan. Walsh & Husch argue that it originated in France. Its first appearance in England is in Durham in the mid-900s. The Pentecost hymn I have chosen was divided into three sections for Terce, Sext, and Nones. The translation is that of Walsh & Husch, 100 Latin Hymns from Ambrose to Aquinas, number 56 (pp. 185-187).

Now Christ had mounted to the stars,
returning to his former home,
the Holy Spirit to bestow
as promised by the Father’s gift.

That solemn day was dawning now
to which the globe had circled round
seven times its mystic number seven,
denoting now the blessed time.

On all, when that third hour had come,
the world in sudden thunder broke,
according to the apostles’ prayers
announcing God’s arrival here.

So downward from the Father’s light
the beauteous, fostering fire descends,
to fill the hearts that trust in Christ
with the burning impact of the word.

Men’s hearts are full, and feel the joy
as holy light is breathed on them;
their diverse voices harmonize
and tell of God’s glorious deeds.

From every race is gathered there
the Greek, Latin, barbarian,
and to the astonishment of all
they speak in universal tongues.

The unbelieving crowd of Jews
being then possessed by lunacy
together shout: “Christ’s fosterlings
are belching, reeling with new wine!”

But Peter, wielding signs and powers,
confronts them, teaching them the truth,
that they are faithfless, telling lies,
with Joel his witness giving proof.

I enjoy this poetic retelling of Pentecost, especially with its emphasis on the missional empowerment of the Holy Spirit upon Christ’s Apostles. Growing up in the charismatic segment of Anglicanism, the emphasis I have often heard has been that of the spiritual gifts bestowed on them. This hymn certainly acknowledges the supernatural power of the Spirit upon the Apostles — ‘Peter, wielding signs and powers’ — but also, and importantly, upon the missional aspect of these gifts.

The Apostles were not given charismata of the Holy Spirit solely that they could walk closer with the Most Holy Trinity (although I do not doubt that such was the effect; Christ calls Him the Comforter in John, after all) but also so that they could bring many, of every tribe, tongue, and nation, into the mystical body of Christ, which is the Church.

I am also struck by the Carolingian love of … puzzles, of significances hidden in what we would consider insignificant details. Pentecost is fifty days after Easter. That, to the modern mind, is a matter of simple, straightforward mathematical fact. But to the Carolingians, mathematics was part of the mind of the God who ordered and sustained the universe. Pentecost is very nearly 7 times 7 days away from Easter — the perfect number squared. The mystical significance is that God does all things in his kairos, at the fullness of time.

I hope that you, too, enjoy this hymn! And a Happy Pentecost to my Eastern Orthodox friends!

Pentecost!! (with Barsanuphius & John)

What I actually wanted to share with you today does not fall under the heading ‘Why I am not Orthodox.’ It is, rather, a little letter from Barsanuphius. Barsanuphius was a monk who lived near Gaza in the early 500s. He was both a solitary recluse and an abbot. He communicated with his community via letters, and is called ‘the Great Old Man.’ He had an assistant, John, ‘the Other Old Man,’ who basically ran the monastery for him.

Once, a brother got fed up with John and said that Barsanuphius did not exist, that he was imaginary, and that John was using this authority figure to manipulate them all. Barsanuphius heard this, broke through the mud brick wall behind which his cell was located, and, without a word, washed the brothers’ feet. Then he went back to his cell and bricked himself in again.

This is the sort of oddity you get used to when you study early monasticism. Unlike many of the world’s solitaries, however, Barsanuphius had an active ministry beyond his monastery’s walls. He wrote letters, as did John. There are over 800 of them that survive. These letters are to bishops, priests, and deacons, as well as to farmers and monks and aristocrats. Anyone could write, and many did.

So here’s my translation of Ep. 120. If you want more passages suitable for Pentecost, chiefly Patristic (but not exclusively), I recommend you review the past several days at Enlarging the Heart. Happy Pentecost!:

Question from the same to the Great Old Man: Master, as you know, since I am sickly in soul and body, I beg you to call upon God to supply power and strength to me for endurance so that I may gratefully bear the attacks.

Answer of Barsanuphius:

Brother Andrew, I wish that your charity would learn that all gifts are given through the coming of the Holy Spirit, and ‘of diverse kinds and in diverse ways’ (Heb. 1:1). For God gave the Spirit to the Apostles at one time to cast out demons, at another to accomplish healings, at another to foresee, at another to raise the dead, and in the end to release sins and liberate souls from darkness and lead them into the light. Thus, behold, I beg God that after the freedom of your soul He may give you the Holy Spirit for endurance and thanksgiving, and so that ‘the enemy might be dishonoured since he has no defence against us’ (Tit. 2:8) Assist, you as well, fighting to obtain it, and ‘God who is rich in mercy’ (Eph. 2:4) will give it to you. Pray for me, brother.

Pentecost!

Because I’ve been wanting to pray the office more frequently anyway, and because I need to become acquainted with Latin Vulgate, especially the Psalter, I’ve been praying the Roman Divine Offices of Lauds and Vespers (although today, actually, Terce) every day for about five days now.

The Office hymn for Pentecost, as it turns out, is a famous one:

Veni, Creator Spiritus,
Mentes tuorum visita,
Imple superna gratia,
Quae tu creasti, pectora.

Qui diceris Paraclitus,
Altissimi donum Dei,
Fons vivus, ignis, caritas,
Et spiritalis unctio.

Tu septiformis munere,
Digitus Paternae dexterae,
Tu rite promissum Patris,
Sermone ditans guttura.

Accende lumen sensibus:
Infunde amorem cordibus:
Infirma nostri corporis
Virtute firmans perpeti.

Hostem repellas longius,
Pacemque dones protinus:
Ductore sic te praevio
Vitemus omne noxium.

Per te sciamus da Patrem,
Noscamus atque Filium,
Teque utriusque Spiritum
Credamus omni tempore.

Deo Patri sit gloria,
Et Filio, qui a mortius
Surrexit, ac Paraclito,
In saeculorum saecula. Amen.

This is a ninth-century hymn composed by Rabanus Maurus. You probably know it best in this English translation, here sung by St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir:

This translation is by far my favourite, even if it’s not the most ‘accurate’. It is the most poetic and beautiful:

Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire,
and lighten with celestial fire.
Thou the anointing Spirit art,
who dost thy sevenfold gifts impart.

Thy blessed unction from above
is comfort, life, and fire of love.
Enable with perpetual light
the dullness of our blinded sight.

Anoint and cheer our soiled face
with the abundance of thy grace.
Keep far from foes, give peace at home:
where thou art guide, no ill can come.

Teach us to know the Father, Son,
and thee, of both, to be but One,
that through the ages all along,
this may be our endless song:

Praise to thy eternal merit,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Pentecost, the so-called ‘Birthday of the Church.’ It is a time for us to look back upon that day, fifty days following Christ’s Resurrection, ten following his Ascension (leave-taking?) from Earth (in bodily form, of course, for now He is everywhere). On that day, the Holy Spirit came and gave his gifts to the Apostles, empowering St. Peter, the man who denied his Lord three times, to preach before a crowd and bring thousands into the new faith.

As the Roman Breviary says, ‘Today the days of Pentecost are fulfilled, Alleluia! Today the Holy Spirit in fire appeared to the disciples, and bestowed upon them charismatic gifts; he sent them into the whole world, to preach, and to bear witness, ‘He who believes and has been baptised will be saved. Alleluia!’

The Chester Mystery Plays: Medieval Drama and the Biblical Narrative

This past weekend I was blessed to be in the audience for a staging of the Chester Mystery Plays at Victoria College at the University of Toronto (the production’s website).  These plays were performed at Chester in England every year at Whitsuntide (ie. Pentecost) until 1572, when they were banned for fear of being a potential source of Catholic rebellion against Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth I.

The plays took place over the course of three days from Saturday through Monday (Monday being Victoria Day).  They begin with the Fall of Lucifer and move on to Creation and the Fall of Man, thence to certain important pieces of Old Testament history such as Cain & Abel, Abraham and Melchyzedeck, Abraham and Isaac, the giving of the Law.  Then the audience gets a taste of the life of Christ, from Nativity and the Shepherds at the end of Saturday to Crucifixion at the end of Sunday.  Monday took the audience from the Harrowing of Hell through the Resurrection, Ascension, Pentecost, Antichrist, and Last Judgement.

That is to say, over the course of a single weekend, your average late-medieval theatre-goer in Chester would have seen the entire sweep of the biblical narrative played out before her.  This is a very important fact.  On Sunday, our priest was encouraging us to engage in the oft-recommended practice of daily Bible reading as a way to stay connected with the Holy Spirit.  For most of Christian history, this was not possible for most of the population.  Thus, for the Church in the Middle Ages, the public proclamation and performance of Scripture was important, for such was how the people would encounter the Bible on a regular basis, being unable to read it for themselves.  This is also why icons and stained glass were vital.

And in the Chester Mystery Plays one is not simply viewing a bunch of Bible stories acted out as so often occurs in ecclesiastical drama today.  In “Cain and Abel“, Adam proclaims:

Whyle that I slepte in that place /my gost to heaven banished was; /for to see I them had grace / thinges that shall befall. . . .  Alsoe I see, as I shall saye, /that God will come the laste daye / to deeme mankynde in fleshe verey, / and flame of fyer burninge, / the good to heaven, the evell to hell. / Your childrenn this tale yee may tell.

In my mind, God coming “to deeme mankynde in fleshe verey” is a reference to the Incarnation.  Indeed, the Old Testament plays, all of which I viewed, have Christ all over the place, in Abraham and Melchyzedeck, Abraham and Isaac, Moses and the Law.  Even when Balaam blesses Israel against Balaack’s wishes, there is content about Jesu.  The Medieval mind saw Christ everywhere, and rightly so, for he permeates the fabric of Scripture if we have eyes to see Him there.

I missed Sunday, but I caught the end of the Resurrection through the Last Judgement.  Here we see Christ in action.  He is appearing and disappearing in the Upper Room.  He is blessing St. Peter and the Apostles.  He is sending His Holy Spirit, Who gives to the Apostles the ability to understand different tongues as well as boldness to proclaim the Gospel.  He defeats Antichrist and judges the peoples with justice.

If you have the opportunity to view a staging of the Chester Cycle (such as that in Chester, England, in 2013), you should.  It is a shame that they have fallen out of the tradition of English drama and of Anglican Christianity.