Thursday, 28 April 2016

The parish and Benedictine hospitality

Timothy O'Malley has given a superb reflection on how a parish can embody Benedictine hospitality.  His reflection follows time with the Benedictine community of St. Procopius Abbey in Lisle, Illinois.

Benedictine hospitality is not some broad pedagogical idea. It’s not a principle that defines what it means to be a Benedictine institution. Rather, it is a series of embodied practices that forms the monk over the course of a lifetime to make space for the guest. They pray the Office together, with no voice standing out above the others. They eat dinner in specific places. They set the table in a specific way. And in these practices that make a monk, they always ensure that there is space for the guest among them. They learn, through an embodied spiritual formation, that not all space is theirs. Not all time is theirs. Everything is gift from God.

Our parishes often seek to be spaces of hospitality. From my time at St. Procopius, I wonder if the way to “form” a hospitable parish is not through slogans (like All Are Welcome). Rather, it is to practice a form of life together in the parish that makes space for the guest. It is to learn to pray together in a way in which my voice does not overpower my neighbor. It is to create a form of life in which I cease thinking about myself as an individual monad, an individual family. And instead take up a series of practices in which my entire life is about making space for the other. In which every part of my life becomes an offering of praise to the God who is the source of all gift.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

"Nay, by no shade of a shade": Christina Rossetti's Marian devotion

Today in many Anglican calendars is the commemoration of poet Christina Rossetti.  It is an opportunity to reflect both on the general significance of the arts to Anglicanism's 19th century catholic renewal, and on the particular contribution of Rossetti.

One aspect of Rossetti's work that does not appear to have received much commentary, is her approach to the Blessed Virgin Mary.  Perhaps nothing was more likely to shock the masculine Whig Protestantism of 19th century Britain - with its God of Empire, free trade and liberty - than Marian devotion.  This was the stuff of backward Spanish superstition, not of proud freeborn Britons.

In Rossetti, however, we see the realisation that it is precisely Marian devotion which leads us to a deeper encounter with God Incarnate, so unlike the deity who presided over the Whig Empire of commerce.  In her Christmastide poems, we see Rossetti's Marian devotion flower - a Marian devotion rejoicing in the flesh and blood reality of the Incarnation.

In 'Christmas Carols', we perhaps get a sense of a desire to scandalise both Whig Protestantism and fashionable Anglo-Saxon atheism with how the breasts of the Theotokos witness to Incarnation: 

A holy heavenly chime
Rings fulness in of time,
And on His Mother's breast
Our Lord God ever-Blest
Is laid a Babe at rest ...

Lord God of Mary,
Whom His Lips caress
While He rocks to rest
On her milky breast
In helplessness.

What does it mean that the Word became flesh? Lips kissed him, milky breast supported him.  Here is God in flesh and blood, not the aloof deity of Empire, the same aloof deity which fashionable atheism denied.

In 'Epiphany', Rossetti's Marian devotion intensifies.  Here she converses with the one who is "holy Mother mine", the Mother who leads us deeper into Love:

They have brought gold and spices to my King,
Incense and precious stuffs and ivory;
O holy Mother mine, what can I bring
That so my Lord may deign to look on me?
They sing a sweeter song than I can sing,
All crowned and glorified exceedingly:
I, bound on earth, weep for my trespassing,–
They sing the song of love in heaven, set free.
Then answered me my Mother, and her voice
Spake to my heart, yea answered in my heart:
'Sing, saith He to the heavens, to earth, Rejoice:
Thou also lift thy heart to Him above:
He seeks not thine, but thee such as thou art,
For lo His banner over thee is Love.'

In 'The Purification of St Mary the Virgin', some traditional Anglican sensitivities are present - the desire to ensure that Marian devotion serves, not obscures, the Church's Christocentric centre.  Of course, this is classical Marian teaching - Mary receives the Redeemer's grace, in this the Church rejoices.  That she is not "defiled" - "by no shade of a shade" - brings us to give thanks to the One who is "Her God and Redeemer and Child":

Purity born of a Maid:
Was such a Virgin defiled?
Nay, by no shade of a shade.
She offered her gift of pure love,
A dove with a fair fellow-dove,
A dove with a fair fellow-dove.
She offered her Innocent Child
The Essence and Author of Love;
The Lamb that indwelt by the Dove
Was spotless and holy and mild;
More pure than all other,
More pure than His Mother,
Her God and Redeemer and Child.

It is in 'Feast of the Annunciation' that Rossetti's Marian devotion perhaps finds its most compelling expression. It seems to conclude with a possible reference to the Assumption - or, at least to the affirmation which the teaching of the Assumption seeks to articulate.  "Her steps" lead to "death", followed by the reference to "Transfigured to His Likeness":

Herself a rose, who bore the Rose,
She bore the Rose and felt its thorn.
All Loveliness new-born
Took on her bosom its repose,
And slept and woke there night and morn.
Lily herself, she bore the one
Fair Lily; sweeter, whiter, far
Than she or others are:
The Sun of Righteousness her Son,
She was His morning star.
She gracious, He essential Grace,
He was the Fountain, she the rill:
Her goodness to fulfil
And gladness, with proportioned pace
He led her steps thro' good and ill.
Christ's mirror she of grace and love,
Of beauty and of life and death:
By hope and love and faith
Transfigured to His Likeness, 'Dove,
Spouse, Sister, Mother,' Jesus saith.

Here is an Anglican Marian devotion both beautiful and profound.  It is cognisant of traditional Anglican sensitivities, while also plunging deeper because moved by love for and joy in the Incarnate Word borne by the Maiden.  It is a resource that should be more readily available to catholic Anglicans (and certainly should appear in any retrieval of catholic Anglican books of devotion).  Also, however, it should move us to ask how and where we might see something similar emerge in 21st catholic Anglicanism - artistic forms which celebrate devotion to the Blessed Virgin in a manner capable of seizing the cultural imagination as did Christina Rossetti in the 19th century.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Blessing and the Prayer Book tradition

One of the alternative prayers over the water follows a clearly ‘receptionist’ theology—‘Now send your Spirit, that those who are washed in this water may die with Christ and rise with him’—which is more obviously in line with Anglican theology than previous formulations.

So said Psephizo in the course of a very useful review of a Grove booklet on the new additional Baptism texts in the CofE.  It is a statement, of course, which reflects a long-established evangelical Anglican conviction - that we 'bless' people, not things. And even then, we shouldn't really talk about 'blessing' as such.  Hence Psephizo urges that it is "odd", does not "work", and should therefore be dropped from our liturgical speech.  Thus even the seemingly innocuous phrase "Let us bless the Lord" should go, perhaps replaced with "Let's thank the Lord".

Andrew Davison's Blessing is the definitive answer to this approach, providing a theologically rich vision of the gift of blessing and its evangelistic significance in our cultural context:

... when Christianity does draw comment today, it is often presented as mean-spirited and world-denying.  By a tragic reversal, this most incarnational of faiths is seen as dualistic, and rejected as such.  Bringing the ministry of blessing to greater prominence might do much to correct that reputation for mean-spiritedness, which so little characterized authentic Christianity.

What Blessing recognises, but seems to be absent from Psephizo's account, is the rich theology of blessing present in the Book of Common Prayer.  Davison rightly notes that we see in the BCP an "Anglican chastened Catholicism" - it does not include the manifold blessings of medieval rituals.  Nevertheless, however, a rich theology of blessing is present.

The Communion concludes with the following rubric:

Then the Priest (or Bishop if he be present) shall let them depart with this Blessing.

And the following blessing, of course, is explicit. 

In the Marriage rite, the nuptial blessing is similarly explicit:

eternal God, Creator and Preserver of all mankind, Giver of all spiritual grace, the Author of everlasting life: Send thy blessing upon these thy servants, this man and this woman, whom we bless in thy Name ...

And the Minister shall add this Blessing.

God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Ghost, bless, preserve, and keep you ...

Now it might be suggested, however uncomfortable some evangelical Anglicans might be with such an explicit practice of blessing, that this represents the blessing of people, not 'things'.  But here again, the BCP provides a richer vision.  Most obviously - and somewhat ironically in view of the quote which opened this post - is the Baptismal rite:

ALMIGHTY everliving God, whose most dearly beloved Son Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of our sins, did shed out of his most precious side both water and blood; and gave commandment to his disciples, that they should go teach all nations, and baptize them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Regard, we beseech thee, the supplications of thy Congregation; sanctify this Water to the mystical washing away of sin ...

Here we ask that the water of the font - not just the recipient of Baptism - is sanctified.  There is nothing receptionist about that.

When we come to the BCP Eucharist, surely the evangelical Anglican objection to blessing is on much stronger ground?  The absence of explicit reference to blessing of the bread and wine is understandable in the context of the Reformation era disputes.  However, we need to recall that - irrespective of Cranmer's intentions - it is 1662 which is the authorised text, not 1552.  1662's introduction of an explicit reference to "the Prayer of Consecration" and the restoration of manual acts both point to a theology of blessing at work - blessing the bread and wine.  Even before 1662, this understanding was present in the theology of the reformed ecclesia anglicana.  Thus Hooker - with his high Reformed understanding of the Eucharistic presence - refers to "this cup hallowed with solemn benediction" (LEP V.67.12).

Finally, for Irish Anglicans there is another suggestive text that requires consideration.  The Irish 1926 BCP was a very conservative revision of 1662 and 1878 (the first post-disestablishment revision).  While it is possible to over-emphasise its low church nature (there are a few interesting examples of Tractarian influence), it is obvious that 1926 was no product of Anglo-Catholicism.  And yet, it includes the following at the conclusion of the Burial rite:

When they come to the Grave, if the Burial Ground is not consecrated, the Minister shall say:

O Lord Jesus Christ, who by thy burial didst sanctify an earthly sepulchre, we beseech thee, to bless and hallow this Grave, that it may be a peaceful resting place for the body of thy servant ...

For such an explicit blessing of an object to be present in such a conservative iteration of the Book of Common Prayer suggests a recognition that, however chastened, a rich theology of blessing is present in the Prayer Book tradition. 

The pastoral and evangelistic significance of this rich theology and practice of blessing is given wonderful expression in Davison's Blessing.  It does, however, seem appropriate, with Rogationtide fast approaching, to draw particular attention to some of his closing words, calling for a "revival of the practice of blessing":

blessing fosters a deepening awareness of God, his world, ourselves and what matters most.

Monday, 25 April 2016

Mark's Gospel: Presence

I know it really should be John, but it's actually Mark - my favourite amongst the Gospels.  Mark capitivated my imagination when I read it as an undergraduate, renewing my faith, bringing me to see afresh that this is God Incarnate.

Perhaps unfashionably, it was those miracles in the early chapters which did it.  The words of the Nicene Creed, which had become jaded in late teen years, now lived - here is God of God, Light of Light.

Reading last year Rowan Williams' Meeting God in Mark, I came to a clearer understanding of this experience of Mark, as he recounted the experience of Orthodox theologian Metropolitan Anthony Bloom:

As a sceptical young man he had been persuaded to attend a camp for young Russians, and attended an address by a celebrated and very saintly Orthodox theologian.  The address infuriated and disgusted him, and he went home determined to confirm for himself the emptiness and stupidity of Christianity by reading the Gospels; he chose to start with Mark simply because it was the shortest.

'The feeling I had occurs sometimes when you are walking along in the street, and suddenly you turn round because you feel someone is looking at you.  While I was reading, before I reached the beginning of the third chapter, I suddenly became aware that on the other side of my desk there was a Presence ...

'I realized immediately: if Christ is standing here alive, that means he is he risen Christ'.

Presence.  This is what captivated my imagination about Mark's Gospel.  Presence.  This is what made the Nicene Creed live.   Presence.  This is the reason for the recurring use of "immediately" in those early chapters, that swift succession of miracles, the confrontations with the authorities, the intense, almost disorienting, sense of Presence. 

It still happens, perhaps not as intense with the passage of the years, but there nevertheless - when I hear or read those opening words, "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God".  Then I encounter afresh what the Creed seeks to articulate, what lies at the heart of prayer and sacrament.


(The illustration is of the opening of the Evangelist and the opening of Mark's Gospel, from a 12th century Book of the Gospels in the Byzantine style, probably from southern Italy or Sicily.)

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Here be dragons: why we need St George

On April 23, all Christian calendars commemorate George of Lydda, the most widely venerated Christian martyr ... the number of churches dedicated to him worldwide is probably beyond estimation.

Bose Martyrology.

Why the popularity of the cult of St George?

Perhaps it is the dragon.  As we pray the Psalter, we encounter dragons.  The prophet Isaiah proclaims the dragon's defeat by Yahweh.  And Job is reminded of the power of the dragon:

Its sneezes flash forth light,
   and its eyes are like the eyelids of the dawn.

From its mouth go flaming torches;
   sparks of fire leap out.

Then there is Revelation, with its vision of cosmic conflict:

And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon.

The cult and iconography of St George, then, has deep roots in how Scripture takes up the legend of dragons and reads in them the victory of God's Kingdom over the chaos, injustice and cruel power present in our histories.

In the life of the baptised, we know that 'here be dragons' - wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, gluttony, and death.  George embodies Resurrection hope even amidst dragons.  Flaming torches, in the words of Job, may dart forth from the dragons, bringing pain and seeking to laying waste, but St George - to quote Chesterton - is witness to the truth that dragons can be beaten, are beaten.

Alison Milbank has talked of the need to renew the Christian imaginary, particularly noting how the communion of saints "is asking for story-telling".  The vivid 'legends' of the saints are a means of such renewal.  They deeply resonate in the cultural imagination, and they richly embody the Paschal Mystery, not as abstraction but as engaging narrative.  Various forms of iconoclasm have sought to remove or demythologise these cults, but it is often their very mythical character which resonates.  We know there are dragons, dragons which deeply wound.  And we need to know that dragons are defeated in the Crucified and Risen One.

The iconography traditionally associated with the cult of George is, then, no distraction from a purer, more authentic account of his martyrdom.  No, St George confronted and overcame the dragon by his participation in the Paschal Mystery.  Aided by his prayers, so may we.

St George, ora pro nobis.

Friday, 22 April 2016

No Pale Galilean: Andrei Rublev and the vision glorious

At the Holy Eucharist on Friday of the Fourth Week of Easter.

Acts 13:26-33 - Psalm 2 - John 14:1-6

They are words which, in Northern Ireland, we see on tracts or hear shouted out on street corners ...

"In my Father's house there are many dwelling places."

"I am the way, and the truth, and the life".

"No one comes to the Father except through me."

And we know, of course, what it is intended to mean.

A religious sub-culture has claimed these words, from today's Gospel reading, as proof-texts ...

Proof-texts for a particularly narrow, life-denying expression of Christianity, which looks out upon a damned world and offers a life-boat for a chosen few.

It's the sort of Christianity which led a 19th century poet, at the dawn of the secular age, to write:

"Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath" [1].

If we wanted to explain the emotional attraction of the views of the New Atheists, such as Richard Dawkins ...

We might just point to a Christianity which turns everything grey and pale with its touch.

The irony, however, is that the words of today's Gospel are profoundly life-affirming.

The vision they set before us is not of creation denied and rejected ...

But fulfilled, sharing in glory.

Rather than being consumed with anxiety about whether we are amongst the chosen few or not, Jesus says, "Do not let your hearts be troubled".

"No one comes to the Father except through me" - which means wherever there is encounter with God, it comes through the One who, John says at the beginning of his Gospel, "enlightens everyone"..

And in the Father's presence there are many - not few - dwelling places.

St John Chrysostom says of this verse: "A great abundance of dwellings is there" [2].

"A great abundance" - not a paltry few for the numerically small number of the chosen from out of the mass of the damned.

"A great abundance" wonderfully summarises the vision that animates this passage from John's Gospel.

And at its heart is the promise of Jesus:

"... so that where I am, there you may be also" [3].

Here the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity, God the Eternal Word, addresses us ...

We - frail, mortal, confused flesh and blood - we are brought to share in the intimate communion of love that is the Holy Trinity.

"... so that where I am, there you may be also".

We can go even further in grasping the meaning of these words.

The Apostle Peter does this in his second epistle, declaring that we "may become participants in the divine nature" [4].

Through the mystery of Easter, the cross and resurrection of Jesus, we come to share in the very nature of God.

It's a vision wonderfully and beautifully captured in Andrei Rublev's famous icon of the Trinity, here before us this morning [5].

God the Father is on the left, with God the Son in the middle, and God the Holy Spirit to the right, both looking to the Father ...

Both sent into the world, the outpouring of the Father's love, for the world's salvation.

And the communion that is the Holy Trinity sits around the table, with space inviting us in, to share in this communion of love.

"... so that where I am, there you may be also".

The vivid, entrancing colours of the icon show us how life-affirming, how glorious is this vision.

There is nothing grey about it.

Here is God's saving purpose for the creation ...

Here, at the table, in this communion of love, partaking of the divine nature, the vision glorious.

And it is of this vision that the Church is meant to be witness and foretaste ...

Not of a pale Galilean turning life grey ...

But of all life caught up in the transfiguring beauty of the Most Holy Trinity.


[1] From Algernon Charles Swinburne's Hymn to Proserpine.

[2] St John Chrysostom Homily 73 on the Gospel of John.

[3] John 14:3c.

[4] 2 Peter 1:4.

[5] "There exists the icon of the Holy Trinity by St Andrei Rublev; therefore God exists." Paul Florensky, quoted in Benjamin Myers Christ the Stranger: The theology of Rowan Williams.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

"The Mother of justification and of the justified": Anselm on Mary and the mystery of redemption

On the feast of St Anselm, his powerful, beautiful words celebrating Our Lady's place in the story of salvation.  She is "the Mother of justification and of the justified", a wonderful expression, grounding Marian devotion in - and showing it to be witness to - the mystery of Christ and of our redemption.
There is no salvation except the salvation whom you bore, O Virgin.  Wherefore, O Lady, you are the Mother of justification and of the justified; you are the Bearer of reconciliation and of the reconciled; you are the Parent of Salvation and of the saved.  O blessed confidence! O safe refuge! The Mother of God is our Mother; the Mother of him in whom alone we hope and whom alone we fear is our Mother.

Quoted in Luigi Gambero Mary in the Middle Ages: The Blessed Virgin Mary in the Thought of Medieval Latin Theologians.

(The illustration is of the Benedictine community at Bec - the abbey of which Anselm was Abbot before becoming Archbishop of Canterbury - venerating Our Lady of Bec.)