Corpus Christi

‘Communion of the Apostles’ — I’m pretty sure this is Panayia Podithou, Troodos, Cyprus (I couldn’t take a photo of my own when I visited)

Today is Corpus Christi. Because Baden-Würrtemberg is fairly balanced between Protestants and Roman Catholics, it’s a holiday here. So for the first time I’m aware of this feast and not by accident.

A few weeks ago, when the upcoming holidays were under discussion, someone asked what Corpus Christi is. I said that it celebrates the Body of Christ.

I was asked, ‘Yes, but what does it celebrate?’

I said, ‘The Body of Christ. The Eucharist.’

‘That’s what it celebrates.’

‘Yes, it’s a special feast just for the Eucharist, and Thomas Aquinas wrote a liturgy and a number of hymns for it. They had just come out of a time of debate about what the Eucharist is, and this feast was a way of celebrating the church’s official line. Although I wouldn’t go as far as a Roman Catholic about how it’s the Body of Christ, but that’s what Corpus Christi celebrates.’

‘I guess you would be the one to know!’

‘I guess so.’

Somehow, I remember my interlocutor asking about three times, ‘What does it celebrate?’ and me stubbornly say, ‘The Body of Christ,’ but I wonder if I’m remembering falsely, because that sounds dumb.

Anyway, it’s Corpus Christi, the feast of the Body of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, flesh historically broken on a Cross and mystically broken in bread.

A worthy celebration, whether you believe in Transubstantiation like the Roman church or in consubstantiation, or are defiant against saying more than, ‘Is means is,’ or believe that we eat it only after a heavenly and spiritual manner (Article of Religion XXVIII), or believe it is only a symbol — the celebration is worthy.

Why should we celebrate the Body of Christ? Why rejoice and commemorate the Eucharist? Because it is one of the two sacraments ordained of Christ during his lifetime on Earth, and the word sacrament signifies thus:

I mean an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us, ordained by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive the same, and a pledge to assure us thereof. (Catechism, 1662 BCP)

Unlike baptism, this is a way we can repeatedly join with Christ in an outward and visible way, receiving his inward, invisible grace. We are psychosomatic unities; sacraments are how God uses our bodies to touch our spirits. And, if the Prayer of Humble Access from the BCP has anything to say about it, he can also touch our bodies:

… that our bodies may be made clean by his Body, and our souls washed through his most precious Blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him and he in us.

It is commended to us by Scripture, by both Jesus and St. Paul, and is repeatedly commended to us by the Fathers, mediaeval saints, magisterial Reformers, and more. John Wesley believed that weekly communion was important, and every day during certain feast periods of the church.

So be happy about the Body of Christ today!

I leave you with two things, then, this Corpus Christi. One is ‘Panis Angelicus’, one of Aquinas’ hymns for the feast, as sung by Pavarotti. The other is a quote from J. R. R. Tolkien, a devout Catholic:

Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament … There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves upon earth. –The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien

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Aquinas vs modern historical-critical Biblical study

I recently polished off Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae: A Reader’s Guide by Stephen J Loughlin. In discussing Aquinas’ unfinished Tertia Pars and its discussion of Our Lord’s earthly life, Loughlin says:

The second section deals with the course of His life while in the world (Questions 40-45), treating of the manner of His life, His temptation in the desert, the manner of and questions related to His teaching, the mircales He worked considered both generally and specifically, and lastly His transfiguration. Kerr notes the elementary nature of these descriptions, particularly in light of ‘modern historical-critical reconstructions of the life of the man who figures in the Gospels,’ and that this section of the Summa is of very limited interest to theologians today. (291)

This is all Questions 40-45 of the Tertia Pars get in Loughlin’s very fine introduction to Aquinas. His treatment of Aquinas’ account of creation and the order of the world is similar — science has proven Thomas wrong on this point, so he’s not much use to us anymore.

I disagree wholeheartedly with this approach. Having read over Questions 40-45, I think they are important for our understanding of Aquinas and of a theological reading of Scripture. With the exception of N T Wright up at St Andrews and, at times, Larry Hurtado in Edinburgh, very rarely do ‘modern historical-critical reconstructions of the life of the man who figures in the Gospels’ and other products of modern historical-critical Biblical Studies give us a theologically-informed or theology-informing reading of the life of Christ.

Thomas Aquinas does that. Therefore, sparse perhaps as his reading of Christ’s life is, lacking as it certainly is in many details of life in the first-century Eastern Mediterranean, the theological way of reading Scripture demonstrated here is of interest to the modern student of theology, who can take Aquinas and supplement his understand of Jesus and first-century Judaism and thereby produce a fuller account.

Furthermore, historical theology is not always about what is most useful for ‘today’. It is about what was believed and discussed then. A good introduction should make the odd bits or superseded bits of an ancient philosophical or theological text interesting to a modern reader, whose understanding of astronomy or of particular historical details may differ from that of the author at hand. This is what C S Lewis’ superlative work The Discarded Image does with the mediaeval worldview at large.

While Loughlin, by and large, makes Aquinas’ major and most influential arguments accessible to a contemporary audience, this is one moment where he fails at the task of producing a helpful introduction. Nonetheless, this book is recommended to anyone interested in grappling with the monstrously large task of reading the Summa Theologiae.

For a full review of this book and its many merits, I refer you to The Medieval Review.

The Spirituality of Gothic Architecture: Look Waay Up!

Portal to Basilique St. Clotilde, Paris (my photo)G K Chesterton, that famous penner of pithy wit, once remarked that some moderns were saying that Gothic architecture, with its towers and spires, was naught but a collection of phallic symbols. He challenged his opponents to build an upside-down cathedral. It’s impossible. Gothic architecture, he maintained, looks the way it does because that’s the most practical way to build a tall building – wide at the base, and skinny at the top.

Furthermore, may I add, the height is not there to make you think of penises. I’m sure this will come as a shock to many of my readers. But it is true! The height is there to draw your eyes heavenwards. To lift your gaze up and up and up. The sky is the heavens, and throughout the New Testament, the rule of God is referred to as the Kingdom of the Heavens. This metaphor is therefore actualised for us by the architecture of Gothic churches and cathedrals.

The Parthenon (by me)

Gothic architecture, you see, is designed to draw your eyes upwards. This is what I have always been told, at least. I have also been told that it is in contrast to Classical architecture and the Romanesque edifices that follow. Classical architecture, so beautifully achieved in the Parthenon or the Arch of Constantine, is an achievement of balance, of poise, of precise, human order.

Gothic architecture is also balanced. But you don’t look at it and say, ‘How geometrically precise!’ Indeed, take a look at Notre Dame de Paris, one of the most famous Gothic buildings on earth. You look at it and you say, ‘Wow, there’s a lot going on!’ And then, inevitably, you end up looking at those high towers with their loud bells between which Philippe Petit once walked on a tightrope.

Notre Dame de Paris (by me)

I’ve been told that it’s a result of the points on the arches. The viewer can’t help but keep moving the eyes upwards. I don’t know if any of this is true. All I can say is that it happens to me every time I visit a Gothic cathedral.

South Transpet, Notre Dame (by me)

Take, for example, Notre Dame again. I was recently there during Mass for the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I spent my time walking through the arcades and ambulatory. The columns are your usual compounded columns of Gothic architecture. And I couldn’t help looking up. I even have the video to prove it. The eyes rise up and up until they hit the ribs and the arches and the groin vaults. It’s not their fault. Blame Pierre de Montreuil.

Once a Gothic church has stolen your eyes, it takes them on journeys of its own choosing. In Milan, you find the pillars topped by sculptures of saints and martyrs. The faithful are ever with you. At Notre Dame, you find Corinthian capitals (a bit of a yawn after the amazing Romanesque capitals in the crypt of St. Denis, that include a guy hitting the devil with a stick.

But you also find rose windows. As mentioned in the previous post, rose windows are part of the achievement in Gothic architecture in making space for light to transform the liturgical space. The first of Notre Dame’s rose windows that I saw, in the south transept, is known as the Rose du Midi. In the centre of this window is Christ as depicted in Revelation, a sword protruding from his mouth.

The Rose du Midi, Notre Dame (by me)

Images of the New Testament stories fill the rest of this rose window as well as 16 prophets who have the four evangelists resting on their shoulders.

Your eyes have been drawn upwards, and what do you find? You find Christ, his judgement, and his kingdom. He is the Light, symbolised in the physical light streaming through the rose window that illuminates the icon of the King of the Universe in the centre of this window.

The central reality of the mystical theology of the whole Middle Ages, from before Pseudo-Dionysius to the early modern Carmelites Sts. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, is the ascent to and discovery of God. Having encountered Christ, the contemplative can have a union with him, can contemplate the reality of the Holy Trinity, something that the fourth-century mystical master Evagrius argues is the height of Christian living.

We have, whether by simply being created matter or through the Fall, gone away from God (exitus). It is now time to return to Him (reditus). Our spiritual eyes must ever stray upwards, up to infinity and beyond, into the starry heights. Somewhere out there, for the mediaeval believer, God was animating the Primum Mobile, and everything was moving and existing out of love for the Divine – this is the central reality of Dante’s Divine Comedy and the heart of Cistercian spirituality as demonstrated in the works of St. Bernard of Clairvaux (Saint of the Week here) – authors who frame the world of Gothic cathedrals (read this on their relationship).

Stained Glass of Notre Dame (by me)

Another theologian of the Gothic world was St. Thomas Aquinas. As mentioned before, Aquinas emphasised the theme of exitus-reditus in his Summa Theologiae. We are to return to God, the true source of all of our happiness and real joy. This is to be done through moral living, through following law, through studying Scripture. And at some point, Aquinas had a mystical experience whilst celebrating the Eucharist. After this, he never wrote another word of the Summa. Many take this fact as a pointer to the direction our own spiritual gaze must go – we are to turn our sights away from the earthbound reason of intellect and transform our nous, our soul, through spiritual insight and contemplation of the divine.

I, personally, believe there is room for both approaches, for the reasonable and the contemplative, for the apophatic and the cataphatic. And there is room for both visions of exitus-reditus in the cathedrals of Europe. We come to these majestic Gothic cathedrals and look up, up, up. There we can perceive the carvings and the architecture, we can perceive the images of the stained glass. Yet to see stained glass clearly, there must be the darkness around us. And often, a rose window is too far away to discern properly. We are in the presence of truth but unable to properly conceive it.

So, very often, with God.

And, like inconceivable Gothic stained glass, God is beautiful above all.

Do you ever get uncomfortable with your own comfort?

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