I sent an e-mail to my friend who’d given the talk spoken of in this post, outlining the same things I outlined here on the blog. His response included:
Thanks for this. … I am no Eastern Orthodox but Presbyterians need a good dose of EO and the EO could use a little Presbyterianism. I like to think of my theology as a Presby ressourcement. That sort of mystical theology is totally absent from the Free Church.
I, myself, am not a Presbyterian, but the call to mystical theology for low Protestants is important.
The image of people who are interested in evangelism and church-planting, who want to see their culture reached for Christ is not — fairly or otherwise — typically that of the mystics. Which is a shame.
A couple of my friends run a Greek theology reading group. A third friend joined them a few times (I went once for St Basil, ‘On the Holy Spirit’), but (I am given to understand) his general attitude towards the discussion was, ‘But what does all this have to do with the man on the street in Glasgow?’ (Why Glasgow?)
In my mind, ‘the man on the street in Glasgow’ — in this instance — is in need of social assistance. (This is not intended as a general statement on Glaswegians.) Why should we worry about St Gregory of Nazianzus and Trinitarian theology when there are starving people out there? In Glasgow?
The image of people who are interested in social action/activism, who want to see the poor clothed and the hungry fed is not — fairly or otherwise — typically that of the systematic theologians. Which is a shame.
Somewhere in his book The Inner Experience, Thomas Merton references St John of the Cross as teaching that one should spend more time in contemplation (used here in its mystical sense) than action — that actions ungirded in the contemplative life are prone to be willy-nilly and of less use. How do we know we are doing them for God’s glory? What is His will? That sort of thing.
That’s one approach to contemplation in a world of action (social/evangelistic).
The other is this: Good theologia and good theoria (contemplation), good thoughts about God and good thoughts in God, dogmatics and mysticism — these, in fact, lead to just behaviour and holy living and Gospel-telling.
Think on St Francis, who was a mystic if ever there was one. But his fervour for prayer, dispassion, contemplation was as tied to a fervour for preaching and for helping the poor.
Solid theology and ‘mystical’ practices give heart and soul to our activities in the world.
Perhaps it is our lack of deep thinking and deep praying that weaken our witness of love to a world eroded by hatred and false loves at every turning.
By looking upon God, whether through the intellectual truths of theology or through the noetic experience of mysticism, we can be suffused with His power, His light, and His love for a broken world.
This post can give some context for the period when I started blogging about ‘Classic Christianity’.
For several years, mostly since I realised that I liked the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) during university and was drawn to St. Francis, my personal devotional and theological life has been taking a journey, and I’m only just now becoming aware of what exactly this journey has been. It is a journey that actually began with discovering the “mere” Christianity popularised by C. S. Lewis, and then a sudden realisation that, while I believe that core of Christian truth (“orthodoxy”), I am hopelessly Anglican. I recently discovered the term “paleo-orthodox”, which I think applies to me.*
Palaeo-orthodoxy is a concept that has been championed by Thomas C Oden, whose book The Rebirth of Orthodoxy I read around Christmastide. The basic premise of palaeo-orthodoxy is that true orthodoxy is the consensual agreement of the Church catholic, and is best found in the first 1000 years of undivided Christian history. If we are to rediscover what it means to be orthodox, then mainline Protestants, Roman Catholics, and the Eastern Orthodox have to turn away from the latest fads and trends in theological and philosophical thinking and look back at what the prophets, apostles, saints, martyrs, and mystics have passed down to us. The implications of palaeo-orthodoxy are not germane to the discussion at hand, however.
This blog has reflected my turn to more traditional, catholic, palaeo- sources for my spiritual life and thought. We see this, for example, in posts about Church Fathers, quotations from the BCP (including a post that was basically cut-and-pasted from it), a discussion about Mediaeval missions and Ramon Llull, and my post about Christology. I have in mind future posts about the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Communion of Saints, Ephraim the Syrian, and who knows what else.
Nevertheless, I want to affirm something important before those other posts fly from my fingertips, before their voice may seem to crowd out everything else — perhaps so that their voice cannot crowd out everything else. While I believe that the rediscovery of what I call “classic Christianity” is important for an increased vibrancy in the Church and for the personal devotional and spiritual life of us pilgrims, I am very missional.
I believe that Christians have two primary duties, the first being: To love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind and all our strength. The second is like unto it: To love our neighbours as ourselves. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.
Or, to phrase it differently, I believe we are first and foremost to engage in worship. Worship God. Join in the song of Creation with the stars and the cherubim and the oceans and the Ethiopians and the Baptists and the trees of the field! Sing God’s praises! Join with those around the Heavenly Throne, crying day and night, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts! Heaven and Earth are full of Thy glory! Hosanna in the Highest!” Cry, “Alleluia!”
And then, loving and worshipping the God Who is Love and Worthy of all worship, we must overflow to tell our world about Him. This is commonly called “evangelism,” but I prefer my friend Rick’s thinking surrounding “discipleship” — not simply making converts, but bringing people to Jesus to a place where they are following Him and living in communion with Him, discovering their gifts, using their talents, and joining in Jesus’ mission of making more disciples. This is the second duty.
For we are all, each and every one of us, loved by God, more than we could possibly imagine. And we are justified by faith through the grace of God alone. None of the works we ever do will save us. All we need to be justified by God is a faith in Jesus, who is God Incarnate, God enfleshed, God pitching His tent among us, Who died that we might live, who took our sin upon Himself and reconciled us to God, satisfying the inestimable love of God the Father. Justified by our faith in Christ, we have a relationship with God the Father, and God the Holy Spirit is sent to dwell in and overflow us.
For this faith, this apostolic faith, to flourish we need worship, prayer, and the Scriptures. And community, no doubt, to encourage us when we are weak, to give a place to use our gifts, to correct us when we err, to provide a place of vibrant power where we can engage in the worship of the triune God.
When I say, therefore, “I am palaeo-orthodox,” I do not believe that incense, candles, icons, prayer books, liturgies, classic hymns, old theology, honouring the saints, the sacraments, the classic spiritual disciplines, et cetera are necessary for salvation (in the strict sense of justification). I am still evangelical in the classic sense, I think. But I do believe that those things are aids for spiritual growth, that they help keep us within the bounds of orthodoxy, wherein we are free to explore God and laugh with joy and question with our rational minds the truths of the universe.
We are spiritual beings, and our spirits must be fed and conformed to the likeness of Christ.
We are rational beings, and our minds must be fed and conformed to the likeness of Christ.
We are emotional beings, and our emotions must also be fed (I don’t how) and conformed to the likeness of Christ.
We are physical beings, and our bodies must be fed and conformed to the likeness of Christ.
What I call “classic Christianity”, then, is an attempt to find Christ in the saints throughout all the ages (this is to say, not simply the last 10, 20, 50, 100 years, but further and deeper and richer than they) and recapture disciplines and thought-patterns that will help me become more like Him, to know Him more, to worship Him more fully, to be conformed into His image, to live like Him, to think with the mind of Christ, and in all these ways join in the Song of Creation, praising God unto ages of ages.
It is not abandoning my charismatic and evangelical heritage by any means, for I still pray in tongues and believe that Scripture is God’s Word written, sufficient for salvation, but rather an attempt to unlock the treasurehouse of that heritage, the stores and riches of Christian orthodoxy throughout the ages so that as a missional, charismatic, evangelical, orthodox, traditionalist, sacramentalist, palaeo-orthodox, liturgical Anglican I can know Christ and make Him known to all the world around me, ever praising Him and singing:
We praise thee, O God; we acknowledge thee to be the Lord.
All the earth doth worship thee, the Father everlasting.
To thee Angels cry aloud, the Heavens and tall the Powers therein.
To thee Cherubim and Seraphim continually do cry,
Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts;
Heaven and earth are full of the Majesty of thy glory.
-from Te Deum Laudamus, an ancient Christian hymn (Canadian BCP pp. 7-8)
* Except I’m an Anglo-Scots Canadian, so I prefer “palaeo-orthodox”.
I like the British sci-fi programme Doctor Who in pretty much all of its filmed manifestations (and also comic books featuring one or other Classic Doctor) — I am even amongst those who feel that the 1996 TV movie that failed to produce a re-boot is not as bad as all that; Paul McCann gave a good performance as the Eighth Doctor, even if the script he had to work with was more than a little shabby. What follows, however, is about the 2005-present reboot on the BBC — in particular, last Saturday’s episode, ‘The Rings of Akhaten.’*
Like most sci-fi, there is not a lot of religion on Doctor Who.** However, like most sci-fi, Doctor Who is a way to explore real concerns — what does it mean to be alive or a person? What has real value in this ‘verse? How many hearts does a person really need? Can things be smaller on the outside? And so, occasionally religion makes its way into the programme.
For example, we have ‘The Satan Pit’ in series two, a season packed with a high number of well-written and well-executed episodes, this one including. And series four has the episode ‘The Fires of Pompeii’, which has some interesting visions of Roman religion. The writers/directors/whoever has power try to keep some balance in their representations of religion.
And so this past week, ‘The Rings of Akhaten.’ This episode shows us the sociological phenomenon at its best and worst, I would argue. Indeed, the truth claims of the religion are hardly an issue for the Doctor. What matters for him when he and Clara visit Akhaten is the togetherness produced by the religion. These various alien species who share a religion have come together to worship and, stemming from that, to do business, to have social gatherings, all the things persons tend to do when put together in large groups.
And so we have the scene where little Mary, the Queen of Years, sings to Grandfather and the whole stadium joins in. The Doctor also sings, and encourages Clara to sing along. As you watch and listen to the vast crowd singing the fairly lovely song together, there is a strong sense of togetherness, of belonging, of strength.
This is the beautiful side of religion and its social aspect.
But religion can also consume persons and societies. Thus the adventure part of last week’s episode, where a star-dwelling alien worshipped as a god seeks to devour people’s souls. And the Doctor, of course, saves the day — with Clara’s help.
All religious movements and many religious ideas can consume people in a bad way. They can destroy cultures, they can cause wars, they can bring people to neglect certain of their earthly duties, they can help foster the madness of ethnic cleansing.
But this is rare, and most religions — except for obvious things such as the ‘Teutonic’ religious beliefs attached to something like Nazism — do not promote destructive activities. All of them may call you to sacrifice, but true sacrifice is a choice you make in the face of losing your very self — a martyr is faced with the brutal option of either physical death or the soul-death of abandoning his/her truest ideals. In that case, it is not the religion but the persecutor who destroys.
Nevertheless, we should watch that even Christianity, which I believe is the one, true religion (or, as is popular today, ‘faith’), does not become a destructive rather than creative force. For some, twisted readings of Scripture are used as authorisation for a host of ills and ways of tearing people asunder. But for others, such as my mediaeval hero St Francis, Scripture provides the fuel for feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, producing art out of love for God and neighbour.
As we read in the book of James, true religion that is acceptable to God is helping the poor, the orphans, the widows. Such people hold a special place in the heart of our God. Will we help them, or will we chant ‘God hates fags’ or make fun of our Muslim neighbours or scorn the turbans of our Sikh co-workers?
Who will you become — St Francis or Frank Phelps?
*This always looks like a misspelling of Akenaten, one of my favourite pharaohs. Interestingly, the programme features a being referred to as a mummy and a giant pyramid. And sun-worship.
**Reasons for liking Firefly and Battlestar Galactica include the presence of the religious impulse in the characters. Our sense of the numinous will not be diminished by technology. Indeed, I imagine that starships and the vastness of space may have the opposite effect upon us. Technology may even start religions, cf. Endymion by Dan Simmons.
Every once in a while, I wonder if I’m missing out in the deeper, harder joys of life by living in such ease. For example, the Life of John the Almsgiver (Patriarch of Alexandria 606-616) tells some fairly remarkable stories about this man. Once, he was given a quilt worth 36 nomismata, a fairly tidy sum. At the behest of the giver, he slept under it for the first night, but was tossing and turning all night with guilt that the money could have been better spent. So, the next morning, he sold it, bought four rough blankets for 1 nomisma, and gave the other 35 to the poor.
Chapter 23 of the same Life relates similar anecdotes about St. Serapion (is this Serapion of Thmuis, the 4th-c bp?):
Serapion once gave his cloak to a poor man and as he walked on and met another who was shivering, he gave that one his tunic, and then sat down naked, holding the holy Gospel, and on being asked, ‘Who has taken your clothes, father?’ he pointed to the Gospel and said, ‘This is the robber’. Another time he sold the Gospel to give an alms and when a disciple said to him, ‘Father, where is your Gospel?’ he replied, ‘Son, believe me, it was the Gospel which said to me “Sell all you have and give to the poor”, so I sold it and gave to the poor that on the day of judgment we may have freer access to God’. (Trans. Dawes, Three Byzantine Saints)
They tell a story about St. Francis (I think I read it in John Michael Talbot’s book The Lessons of Saint Francis, however it may be from the Little Flowers) that one day he was given a cloak by the brothers, not being the sort of person to wear a cloak, and the weather being cold. Submitting himself to the will of the brothers, he wore this cloak — until he saw a poor, poverty-stricken soul shivering in the winter cold. Thereupon, the goodly saint divested himself of the cloak.
According to the grand scheme of Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, true happiness and contentment are found in union with God. God is Christ (the whole point of the Nicene Controversy that occupied much of the Church’s time in the fourth century), and Christ tells us that we will find Him in the poor, the naked, the hungry, the prisoner.
Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world. -James 1:27 KJV
For Lent and part of Eastertide (all of Eastertide?), I shall be alternating Anglicans and mystics for the saints of the weeks. Last week we had our Anglican in Dorothy L. Sayers, and this week we get a mystic.
St. Bonaventure (1221-1274) is one of the bright lights of the thirteenth-century. He was born five years before the death of St. Francis of Assisi (saint of the week here) and lived to carry on the great Franciscan tradition of mysticism and preaching as a biographer of St. Francis and as minister general of the Order of Friars Minor.
Ewert Cousins writes that “he flourished during that brief period when spirituality and speculation were not yet separated.” (2) This is to say, before dogmatic and mystical theology became separate discourses in the West, a separation never fully achieved in the East, as seen in the brilliance of St. Gregory Palamas (on whose conception of God, see here). Hopefully, by making acquaintance with saints like Bonaventure we can reunite these two aspects of the Christian reality in the West.
Bonaventure was baptised as John (he took the name Bonaventure when he took holy orders) and grew up in Bagnoregio, a small central-Italian town. In Bagnoregio, he is reputed to have received primary education from the Franciscans who had established a friary* there. As well, Bonaventure suffered from a serious illness when a boy from which his mother’s vows to the newly-canonised St. Francis snatched him. His contacts with the Franciscans are early, then.
He studied at the University of Paris in 1234 where he met the active Franciscan intellectual tradition founded by Alexander of Hales at that university. In 1243 Bonaventure became Bonaventure — ie. joined the Franciscan Order — and continued studying theology under Franciscan theologians there, whose combination of learning and intellect with the simplicity of St. Francis was very attractive to Bonaventure. 1248 saw Bonaventure licensed to lecture on the Scriptures, and in 1253-4 he became a master in theology. He took over the Parisian Franciscan school.
In 1257 he was elected minister general of the Order of Friars Minor (aka “Franciscan Order” — except that they have subsequently splintered like all Christian groups). He came to head the Order in large part because he was an antidote to the apocalyptic teachings of Joachim of Fiore (these teachings were so notable that they were denounced at Church Councils later on). He tried to regulate the Order through moderation.
In 1274, as a Cardinal present at the Council of Lyons, he passed from this life.
St. Bonaventure spent his entire career, even amidst the busy-ness of life as minister general, writing. He wrote his lectures at Paris, he wrote scholastic treatises, he wrote of things spiritual. All of these are a part of the whole of who Bonaventure was and what Bonaventure did. We must not divide the scholastic from the mystic, as so many often do. Indeed, the experience of the mystic is what grounds the scholastic — and vice versa.
Nonetheless, I’m around 550 words into this post, so we’ll focus on Bonaventure the mystic.
Bonaventure’s spiritual masterpiece is The Soul’s** Journey Into God, written around 1259. It’s inspiration was St. Francis’ vision of the sing-winged seraph when the Saint received the stigmata. St. Francis’ vision was itself a symbol of the ecstasy of St. Francis’ contemplative life. There are, then, six stages of the soul’s journey, with a seventh chapter of this work focussing on the goal of this journey.
The starting-point of this journey of the soul is Christ crucified, for good Christian mysticism is always focussed on Christ (without Christ we’d all just be Ians, which isn’t so bad, I s’pose…). The starting-point of this journey is not the world of the detached intellectual. No, this is the world of the burning love of the incarnate God who chose death so that we might live. The world of fierce glory that chooses painful suffering to bring others into that glory. Our souls have a place, as does our rational aspect, but mere cognition will not do. Not here.
We enter through the door of the crucified God and find Him through the contemplation of His creation (cf. my thoughts on the “Canticle of Brother Sun”). From contemplation of the created, material order, we move further along the journey into the world of sensation, thence to the spiritual aspect of our soul, and from there into God.
A lot like St. Teresa (saint of the week here), eh? These exact steps are not necessary for the soul, but they are certainly laid out as a typical path by Bonaventure. This is not unsurprising. God has revealed Himself to us everywhere. The Heavens declare the glory of God, after all. Furthermore, we were made in His image. And most of Christian history thought that meant our nous was the bit that looked like God.
How can we not, then, find God within us? The Kingdom of Heaven is, after all. The Kingdom of Heaven is also at hand. Furthermore, Christ is the Logos, the rational, ordering principle that rules and guides the universe. He is to be found in all men in all places.
This is not a plea for universalism. Neither Francis nor Bonaventure was a universalist. This is a call to remember that in hesychia, in quiet, in peace, after we have got beyond the lizards (Teresa), after we have ascended Mt. Carmel (John of the Cross), after we have entered the cloud atop Mt. Sinai (Gregory of Nazianzus), after we have united our heart and our soul (Gregory Palamas), the God who was manifest as Christ will be known to us. And we will discover that it was his grace drawing us to Him all along.
*A friary is like a monastery, only inhabited by Franciscans or Dominicans; these mendicant (“begging”) orders traditionally use the friaries as bases for their operations in the world, whereas Benedictines and other cloistered orders live within the monastery and do not necessarily enter the world for mission purposes (but they have been known to do so).
**Soul = mens = nous = untranslateable into English. That inner part of you that can connect with God.
On June 10, 2009, I published a post about our first weekly saint, St. Columba. Since then, the list has grown considerably. Most of them get the big ST, but not all. The principle has been the examination of the lives and teachings of those who have gone before us. Not all Christians of interest get the big ST.
We have looked at ancient, mediaeval, and post-mediaeval (‘modern’) Christians. We have looked at Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Protestants, and one Ethiopian Orthodox. Apostolic men stand alongside poets who shake hands with mystics and martyrs. All of these people have lived lives for Christ, and I hope that all of them can help bring us nearer to Christ by their example and teaching.
My selection has sometimes been from the Church Calendar. Sometimes it has started there, as with Edmund James Peck (see in the list) and then extended by association; following Peck I wrote about other missionaries to the Arctic. Sometimes they are chosen because I am reading about them or studying their work.
Often, if you have been following these weekly saints, you will have noticed that I give a brief biography of the saint, but not always. Sometimes I offer a meditation on some aspect of the saint’s life and teaching. Sometimes I ponder how best we might be able to honour or learn from a particular saint. I hope these have been a blessing and will continue to bless! Enjoy!
There are no women. This is too bad. I should fix this. I meant to St. Margaret, Queen of Scotland, when her feast rolled on by, but posted about no saint that week. She and others shall make their way into the saints for 2011. Here are the Weekly Saints thus far:
The first Franciscan text we read last night was the “Canticle of Brother Sun”. This is one of St. Francis’ most popular writings. It is especially popular today since St. Francis is the patron saint of ecologists and people can get their pets blessed on his feast day. According to GK Chesterton, in fact:
It is a supremely characteristic work and much of Saint Francis could be reconstructed from that work alone.
Like all acts of writing, the “Canticle of Brother Sun” is dangerous, risky. In the hands of an unsympathetic reader, it could be interpreted as heresy, as a form of pantheism, panentheism, or pagan nature-worship. In the hands of a heretic, it could be used as such. On the other hand, in the hands of a sympathetic orthodox reader, it becomes the hymn “All Creatures of Our God and King.”
St. Francis of Assisi was an orthodox Catholic believer. His goal was not to start his own hippie church (contra Donovan &Brother Sun, Sister Moon). His goal was to bring the true faith to the common people of Italy, to bring people to true faith and hearty repentance, to cause the rich to reconsider the value of wealth, to give strength the poor — and all of these things are not done through Brother Sun but through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. St. Francis was aware of this. It permeates the majority of his life, the stories of his life, and his writings.
And if we look at the “Canticle of Brother Sun,” we see that it balances all the words about creation with praise of the Creator. This is the balance that must be found when we discuss eco-theology or the greening of theology or a theology of the environment or creation care. The centre of our worship must always, ever, and ceaselessly be our Lord God.
So it was for St. Francis. I disagree with the Chesterton quotation above. If we are to know St. Francis’ heart, we must look beyond the “Canticle of Brother Sun.” Elsewhere we see the centrality of Christ in his life. We must balance this canticle with the rest of the saint’s writings. Thus, we shall take the “Canticle of Brother Sun” and look at it parallel to chapter 23 of the “Earlier Rule” (for those pressed for time, I have bolded the word therefore; read from that word on for a briefer experience):
All-powerful, most holy, most high and supreme God
Holy and just Father
Lord, King of heaven and earth
we thank You for Yourself
for through Your holy will
and through Your only Son
with the Holy Spirit
You have created all things spiritual and corporal
and, having made us in Your own image and likeness,
You placed us in paradise.
And through our own fault we have fallen.
And we thank You
for as through Your Son You created us
so also through Your holy love, with which You loved us,
You brought about His birth
as true God and true man
by the glorious, ever-virgin, most blessed, holy Mary
and You willed to redeem us captives
through His cross and blood and death.
And we thank You
for Your Son Himself will come again
in the glory of His majesty
to send the wicked ones
who have not done penance and who have not known You
into the eternal fire,
and to say to all those who have known You and have adored You
and have served You in penance:
“Come, you blessed of My Father,
receive the kingdom,
which has been prepared for you
from the beginning of the world.”
And because all of us wretches and sinners
are not worthy to pronounce Your name,
we humbly ask that our Lord Jesus Christ,
Your beloved Son, in whom You were well pleased,
together with the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete,
give You thanks as it pleases You and Him for everything,
[He] Who always satisfies You in everything
through Whom You have done such great things for us.
[Here follows a list of saints begged to join in thanks. Then a request for all people, laity and clergy, to serve the Lord.]
Let us all love the Lord God with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, and all our strength [cf. Mark 12:30], with fortitude and with total understanding, with all of our powers, and with every effort, every affection, every emotion, every desire, and every wish. He has given and gives to each one of us our whole body, our whole soul, and our whole life. He created and redeemed us, and will save us by His mercy alone. He did and does every good thing for us who are miserable and wretched, rotten and foul-smelling, ungrateful and evil.
let us desire nothing nothing else
let us wish for nothing else
let nothing else please us and cause delight
except our Creator and Redeemer and Saviour,
the one true God,
Who is the fullness of Good
all good, every good, the true and supreme good
Who alone is good
merciful and gentle
delectable and sweet
Who alone is holy
just and true
holy and right
Who alone is kind
from Whom and through Whom and in Whom is
of all the penitent and the just
of all the blessed who rejoice together in heaven.
Therefore let nothing hinder us
nothing separate us
or nothing come between us.
Let all of us
wherever we are
in every place
at every hour
at every time of day
everyday and continually
believe truly and humbly
and keep in our hearts and love, honour, adore, serve
praise and bless
glorify and exalt
magnify and give thanks to
the most high and supreme eternal God
Trinity and Unity
the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit
the Creator of all
Saviour of all who believe in Him
and Hope in Him
and love Him
without beginning and and without end
blessed, worthy of praise,
glorious, exalted on high, sublime,
most high, gentle, lovable,
delectable and totally desirable above all else