Saint Robert Southwell: The Burning Babe

As this is the last Sunday of Advent, I thought I would share a poem that looks forward to the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord – Christmas Day. The poem in question is the The Burning Babe by Saint Robert Southwell; a piece that is shot through with a deep sense of urgency and wonder, piling on a series of startling images that take what we know about the Nativity of Christ and re-present them in order to allow us to see just how radical an event the Incarnation really is. The method employed by Southwell is partly rooted in scriptural typology, in the sense that he makes Christological connections to reference points from the Old Testament (principally the episode of Moses and the Burning Bush in Exodus 3), but he does so in a way that draws imaginative parallels instead of connecting Christ to the older narratives in terms of prophecy.

Just as Moses, when confronted with the presence of God in the Burning Bush, was afraid of what he had encountered, falling to the ground because of the holiness that was before him, here Saint Robert Southwell imagines himself in a bitterly cold winter’s night suddenly coming across an intense heat and light. Just like Moses, he lifts up a ‘fearful eye’ to see from whence the heat and light came, but finds there instead a lonely child. Moreover, the great burning heat that emanates from the babe is revealed to be fuelled and stoked not by any earthly means, but by justice and mercy, whilst the fire itself is Love. The Babe goes on to explain that ‘the metal in this furnace wrought are men’s defilëd souls’ – that whilst the intensity of the heat and light of the encounter is borne of a great tenderness, it is no less holy, no less a challenge to us:

 

As I in hoary winter’s night stood shivering in the snow,

Surprised I was with sudden heat which made my heart to glow;

And lifting up a fearful eye to view what fire was near,

A pretty babe all burning bright did in the air appear;

Who, scorchëd with excessive heat, such floods of tears did shed

As though his floods should quench his flames which with his tears were fed.

Alas, quoth he, but newly born in fiery heats I fry,

Yet none approach to warm their hearts or feel my fire but I!

My faultless breast the furnace is, the fuel wounding thorns,

Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns;

The fuel justice layeth on, and mercy blows the coals,

The metal in this furnace wrought are men’s defilëd souls,

For which, as now on fire I am to work them to their good,

So will I melt into a bath to wash them in my blood.

With this he vanished out of sight and swiftly shrunk away,

And straight I callëd unto mind that it was Christmas Day.

 

By describing the Nativity of Our Lord in terms of the great and terrible holiness of the Burning Bush, and employing the language often found in the Prophets of divine furnaces honing the souls of men, Southwell reminds us that, whilst Christmas should indeed be a comfort to us (the fire, he writes, ‘made my heart to glow’) we do not therein encounter something insipid or saccharine, and are not merely told that we are ‘alright as we are’ and left to dwell in self-satisfied ease. Christ comes in weakness and humility, as a wailing child, born into poverty and peril; but His coming in this way, shows us what God (who will one day judge us all) is like and what He truly values – that ‘his mercy is on those who fear him’ and that the proud are therefore scattered ‘in the imagination of their hearts’ whilst He has ‘exalted those of low degree’ (Luke 1:50-52).

This revelation of God’s true nature and what He deems important should be deeply challenging to us all, given how deeply we cling to the stories we tell ourselves of our innate goodness and prestige, how much we deserve from God and neighbour and the excuses we so creatively conjure up to mask the reality of our connivance, jealousies, malicious speech, and the acts of dishonesty or meanness committed when we think noone is looking. The subtlety of our sins, and the degree to which we have become used to them, does not do anything to erase them, and so Christmas, if we take seriously what it means, must remain a great interruption for us – a shock to wake us from our indolence and complacency.

Saint Robert, in another poem of his (New Heaven, New War – memorably set to music by Benjamin Britten in his Ceremony of Carols), wrote of Our Lord that ‘His battering shots are babish cries, His arrows looks of weeping eyes’. This captures well the central import of the poem above and thus of Christmas in general – namely that, though it be by meekness and not by force, God wishes to conquer the sin in us and make clean our souls, putting a right spirit within us; to thereby make right His creation through us and finally to make us His. He knows that the things we so often put first are wants of a secondary nature and that the desires of our hearts can only find true fulfilment in Him, and so He means to bring us to Himself in and through the furnace of divine Love – a love that was first revealed in the clamours of the Child at Bethlehem.

C. S. Lewis on ‘Bad Christians’ and the Raw Material God Works With

Towards the end of Mere Christianity, where he discusses the impact that Christian faith should actually have in one’s life, C. S. Lewis draws attention to a very important point, and one which provides a compelling defence against the oft-heard argument that Christianity can’t be true because there are so many bad Christians. This argument does indeed have some truth to it – if Christianity is true, and the grace of God can transform people’s lives, we should expect to see some evidence of this in the sort of behaviour we find coming from individual Christians. However, it is also true that a good deal of Christians don’t actually practise what they preach, do not pick up their cross daily and allow their wills to be converted to Christ – their faith remains either a mere intellectual assent or a nominal affiliation for the purposes of identity.

With respect to this point – that, as Chesterton said, Christianity has not been tried and found wanting, but has barely been tried at all – one cannot therefore judge the truth of Christianity on the fact that a lot of people either find it too much of a challenge and prefer to stick with the various comforts and routines they have gotten used to, or that in countries with a Christian heritage a lot of people who identify with Christianity never actually undergo any sort of conversion to Christ. Lewis makes a different sort of counter to the ‘bad Christians’ argument though, which is that we do not all start from the same place – God has to work with a vastly differing range of personalities, and so the ‘raw material’ that He starts with must be factored in when assessing the end results:

Christian Miss Bates may have an unkinder tongue than unbelieving Dick Firkin. That, by itself, does not tell us whether Christianity works. The question what Miss Bates’ tongue would be like if she were not a Christian and what Dick’s would be like if he became one. Miss Bates and Dick, as a result of natural causes and early upbringing, have certain temperaments: Christianity professes to put both temperaments under new management if they will allow it to do so. What you have a right to ask is whether that management, if allowed to take over, improves the concern. Everyone knows that what is being managed in Dick Firkin’s case is much “nicer” than what is being managed in Miss Bates’. That is not the point. To judge the management of a factory, you must consider not only the output but the plant. Considering the plant at Factory A it may be a wonder that it turns out anything at all; considering the first-class outfit at Factory B its output, though high, may be a great deal lower than it ought to be…

…But if we left it at that, it would sound as though Christ’s only aim was to pull Miss Bates up to the same level on which Dick had been all along. We have been talking, in fact, as if Dick were all right; as if Christianity was something nasty people needed and nice ones could afford to do without; and as if niceness was all that God demanded. But this would be a fatal mistake. The truth is that in God’s eyes Dick Firkin needs “saving” every bit as much as Miss Bates. In one sense (I will explain what sense in a moment) niceness hardly comes into the question.

Mere Christianity (1982), pp.175-176, Fount Paperbacks.

            At times of the year such as Advent and Lent, when we make a concerted effort to focus on purification of the will, on readying ourselves to remember the great acts of God and receive His graces anew, it is very easy to become dispirited – we realise just how little progress we seem to have made and become downhearted at how selfish, greedy, lustful and proud we still are. But we often neglect to remember where we started off, and that, compared to ten years (or even ten months) ago, we might (and, if we are steadfast in our devotions, usually will) have changed in ways that, for us, are significant. Just because we are not like Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, this does not mean the grace of God is not operative and effective in our lives; and this is something that it is just as important for us to remember as it is for the critic of Christianity.

In the second paragraph quoted above though, Lewis alludes to a further point that is worth remembering – that, whilst authentic faith should indeed produce fruit in our lives, salvation is not about ‘niceness’, and that the ‘good atheist’ needs saving just as much as the ‘bad Christian’. In fact, Lewis argues, those whose ‘raw material’ consists of a good upbringing, a stable temperament and keen conscience may be more in need of salvation than those with obvious faults – the latter awakens one to our need for redemption, whereas the former state can lull us into a state of self-sufficiency such that we are unable to hear the voice of God:

There is a paradox here. As long as Dick does not turn to God, he thinks his niceness is his own, and just as long as he thinks that, it is not his own. It is when Dick realises that his niceness is not his own but a gift from God, and when he offers it back to God – it is just then that it begins to be really his own. For now Dick is beginning to take a share in his own creation. The only things we can keep are the things we give freely to God. What we try to keep for ourselves is just what we are sure to lose.

We must not, therefore, be surprised if we find among the Christians some people who are still nasty. There is even, when you come to think it over, a reason why nasty people might be expected to turn to Christ in greater numbers than nice ones. That was what people objected to about Christ during His life on earth: He seemed to attract such “awful people”. That is what people still object to and always will. Do you not see why? Christ said “Blessed are the poor” and “How hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom,” and no doubt He primarily meant the economically rich and economically poor. But do not His words also apply to another kind of riches and poverty? One of the dangers of having a lot of money is that you may be quite satisfied with the kinds of happiness money can give and so fail to realise your need for God. If everything seems to come simply by signing cheques, you may forget that you are at every moment totally dependent on God. Now quite plainly, natural gifts carry with them a similar danger…

…“Why drag God into it?” you may ask. A certain level of good conduct comes fairly easily to you. You are not one of those wretched creatures who are always being tripped up by sex, or dipsomania, or nervousness, or bad temper. Everyone says you are a nice chap and (between ourselves) you agree with them. You are quite likely to believe that all this niceness is your own doing: and you may easily not feel the need for any better kind of goodness. Often people who have all these natural kinds of goodness cannot be brought to recognise their need for Christ at all until, one day, the natural goodness lets them down and their self-satisfaction is shattered…

…God became man to turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind, but to produce a new kind of man. It is not like teaching a horse to jump better and better, but like turning a horse into a winged creature. Of course, once it has got its wings, it will soar over fences which could never have been jumped and thus beat the natural horse at its own game. But there may be a period, while the wings are just beginning to grow, when it cannot do so: and at that stage the lumps on the shoulders – no one could tell by looking at them that they are going to be wings – may even give it an awkward appearance.

ibid, pp.178-181.

            Why drag God into it? This sums up the attitude of the self-sufficient man described by Lewis above, but also perhaps describes one of the underlying assumptions that the proponent of the ‘bad Christians’ argument is beholden to – namely that they are quite happy getting along with life, and all that stuff about God and ultimate meaning is a hindrance to doing things on their own terms. In other words, the argument that reasons from bad behaviour amongst Christians to the falsity of Christianity itself is a means of distracting from the question of whether Christianity is objectively true or not – because if it is, then we have to change our lives, and that means all of us.

As Lewis says, this is not really about morality – the good conscience and good works that flow from faith are, whilst very important, secondary to the conversion of heart effected by God and the ongoing conversion of our wills to His. He is trying to ‘turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind, but to produce a new kind of man’, and, quite frankly, a good deal of us do not want this – as I argued (via Karl Barth) in another post, our desire to be left alone by God is more of a hindrance to faith (and more destructive of it when it exists) than we would commonly like to admit. I’m getting on fine with my (good and respectable, we implicitly add) life, so why drag God into it?

Furthermore, this point can be extended to those Christians in traditions that repudiate the necessity of the sacraments. They too will argue that they see people in churches where the sacraments are offered and received, and do not see those people as being any better Christians than they are. This is of course something very difficult to prove either way (though the lives of the saints are a most excellent defence against the critique), but the point no doubt has some validity – we all know of people (most of all ourselves) who regularly communicate and yet whose behaviour is often put to shame by people without the benefit of sacraments (or sometimes without any faith at all). Once again we are led to wonder whether there is any truth to this sacramental business if we can’t see the immediate effects in people’s lives.

However, Lewis’ points about ‘raw material’ and the true end of sanctification are again relevant – we do not know what kind of person God is working with in each case, and the point of the sacraments is not primarily to generate ‘niceness’ but to unite us to Christ at a deeper level, changing us from creatures into His children. One might be able to be a good and even holy person without the sacraments, but the objective truth is that without them you are missing out on the fullness of all God wants to offer you, and that what He wants for you is primarily to draw you closer to Him, not just to make you good. Similarly, being a Christian at all doesn’t guarantee goodness – it should make us better than we are already, but first of all it is about relationship with a God who wants to save our souls, and in the process make us happier and more glorious than we can ever imagine.

David Bentley Hart and Rowan Williams: The Cold Heart of Secularism vs. The Warmth and Love of Christmas

As Christmas draws nearer, and we patiently listen to the usual range of tiresome voices calling for a reduction in the use of any overtly Christian imagery in association with celebrating this time of year (e.g.; that Nativity plays have their points of central import either obscured or removed; the insistence on ‘playing down’ religious language when talking about Christmas to colleagues), it is perhaps worth considering what our society might look like if it were as thoroughly secularised as some seemingly wish it to be. One can never predict such things with perfect accuracy of course, but it is surely possible to gain some idea of probable outcomes based on precedent and the core principles of a given movement.

A good assessment of what the core principles of secularism might lead to, and what its track record thus far may suggest, can be found in David Bentley Hart’s book Atheist Delusions (a provocative title that Hart himself takes pains to point out was chosen by his publishers) – a thorough and far-reaching text which examines very carefully the claims made by atheists and secularists about Christian history (particularly the Church’s relationship with science and its effects on culture) and, to my mind, rebuts them pretty comprehensively. The only criticism of the book could be that Hart occasionally displays too much impatience with those he is critiquing, but given the inane caricatures and lazy misrepresentations of Christianity one finds amongst that group, such impatience is perhaps understandable.

In the closing chapters of his book, after having engaged with the most common ‘new’ atheist rejoinders, Hart goes on to assess the history of secularism itself, and the alternative vision that it presents. The basic frame of how he interrogates this history is laid out at the end of a chapter detailing the radically new vision of humanity and our relationship to God that Christianity introduced, and on which rests so much of what is best in Western culture:

A civilisation, it seems obvious, is only as great or as wonderful as the spiritual ideals that animate it; and Christian ideals have shown themselves to be almost boundless in cultural fertility and dynamism. And yet, as the history of modernity shows, the creativity of those ideals can, in certain times and places, be exhausted, or at least subdued, if social and material circumstances cease to be propitious for them. I cannot help but wonder, then, what remains behind when Christianity’s power over culture recedes? How long can our gentler ethical prejudices – many of which seem to me to be melting away with fair rapidity – persist once the faith that gave them their rationale and meaning has withered away?

Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (2009), pp.214-215, Yale University Press.

            Western conceptions of the dignity of the human person, of liberty (classically speaking, not the radically attenuated version we see at work now), of charity and social imperative, are all fundamentally rooted in Christian principles. As Hart notes above, many of these ‘gentler ethical prejudices’ (particularly those that concern the dignity of all human life – an ideal which had so greatly set Christians apart from their pagan neighbours) are already fading away; what then can secularism offer to fill the increasing void at the heart of our culture? The idea that naked reason (which, as it is seen by many secularists, amounts to logical positivism and/or empiricism) can solve all our problems is one that is hard to see as viable:

Can one really believe – as the New Atheists seem to do – that secular reason, if finally allowed to move forward, free of the constraining hand of archaic faith, will  naturally make society more just, more humane, and more rational than it has been in the past? What evidence supports such an expectation? It is rather difficult, placing everything in the scales, to vest a great deal of hope in modernity, however radiantly enchanting its promises, when one considers how many innocent lives have already been swallowed up in the flames of modern “progress.” At the end of the twentieth century – the century when secularisation became an explicit political and cultural project throughout the world – the forces of progressive ideology could boast an unprecendentedly vast collection of corpses, but not much in the way of new moral concepts. At least, not any we should be especially proud of. The best ideals to which we moderns continue to cling long antedate modernity; for the most part, all we can claim as truly, distinctively our own are our atrocities…

…The whole record of the modern attempt to erect a new and more rational human reality upon the ruins of the “age of faith” is thronged, from beginning to end, with lists of sacrificial victims – or, I suppose I should say, not lists but statistical registers, since so many of those victims must remain forever nameless. From the days of the Jacobin Club and the massacres in the Vendée to the great revolutionary socialisms, nationalist and internationalist, of the twentieth century, with their one hundred million or so murders, the will to lead modern humanity onward into a postreligious promised land of liberty, justice, and equality has always been accompanied by a willingness to kill without measure, for the sake of that distant dawn.

ibid, pp.222-223, 227.

            This history of violence in the name of progress, and the ease with which so many of those associated with secularising society adopted theories of eugenics designed to rid the world of people who they believed would ‘weaken’ the gene pool – a particularly grim form of utilitarian/utopian thinking which continues to haunt much of the thinking in ‘pro-choice’ and euthanasia advocates today – does not give one much confidence that complete secularisation of our culture will have a happy ending. But what of the claim that perhaps, after all, the mass killings of the last century were just due to the various movements finding their feet, becoming separated from their true ideals, or that they had found themselves hindered by the old order?

Such a claim would be easier to believe if it weren’t for the fact that secularism is not something that came into being in the twentieth century, but has been an integral element of modernity from the beginning. From the time of the Protestant Reformation onwards, one can see as key to changes in society the struggle of modern nation states to free themselves from the various restrictions that kept them in check – institutional, moral and sacramental ties which had previously been the glue holding Christendom together, and which continued to restrain the worst excesses of the state. As nation states freed themselves from those ties, we see the introduction of things like total war (with its increase of conscription and civilian casualties) and as the centuries went on, so did the amount of ‘jusitifiable’ violence also increase.

As for the moral principles of secularism themselves, there do not really seem to be any, other than the vestiges of Christian morality that we have deigned to keep on board (for the time being). The only thing that could be said to be unique in secularist ideology is the near-worship of reason, and that separated from any historical context or philosophical grounding. Such a lionisation though, seems to have led to our not only discarding previously vital ideals like the dignity of all human life but to our becoming a culture overly reliant on technical expertise, to the point where the only things seen as truly progressive are increases in technological prowess. If it is worrying that there are some who dream of an actual trans-humanism in our future, it is also of concern that we have already located our sense of value in something other than the realisation of human purpose and wholeness:

I suspect that, to a far greater degree than we typically imagine, we have forsaken reason for magic: whether the magic of occult fantasy or the magic of an amoral idolatry of our own power over material reality. Reason, in the classical and Christian sense, is a whole way of life, not the simple and narrow master of certain techniques of material manipulation, and certainly not the childish certitude that such mastery proves that only material realities exist. A rational life is one that integrates knowledge into a larger choreography of virtue, imagination, patience, prudence, humility, and restraint. Reason is not only knowledge, but knowledge perfected in wisdom.

ibid, p.236.

            Secularism is, fundamentally, a cold and heartless ideology – seeing things in terms of an always distant and never fully clarified utopian horizon and moral choices in light of a short-term utilitarinism, it lacks both a coherent teleology and anthropology; not knowing what humanity, and what our purpose in life, is, secularism will always be something that is initially parasitic and ultimately destructive. Failing to understand the fullness of all we are and the richness of the worldview in which we have heretofore lived, it cuts off the branch upon which it rests, standing for nothing in particular other than a vague sense of deliverance from constraint and freedom from material wants – ‘principles’ which tend, ironically, to dehumanisation, violence, and the cooling of charity (in both the social and theological sense).

To end on a happy note though, let us compare the secular vision to the vision of God and man presented to us at that festival so many secularists are keen to undermine – Christmas. Whilst David Bentley Hart has some beautiful passages on the Christian worldview in the book I have already quoted from, I would instead like to turn to a sermon given by Rowan Williams, because it was actually delivered on Christmas Day (in 2004, at Canterbury cathedral) and has a pastoral tone more appropriate to the message being delivered:

When we’re invited into the stable to see the child, it’s really being invited into the engine room. This is how God works; this is how God is. The entire system of the universe, “the fire in the equations” as someone wonderfully described it, is contained in this small bundle of shivering flesh. God has given himself away so completely that we meet him here in poverty and weakness, with no trumpeting splendour, no clouds of glory. This is how he is: he acts by giving away all we might expect to find in him of strength and success as we understand them. The universe lives by a love that refuses to bully us or force us, the love of the cradle and the cross…

…“I have come to cast fire upon the earth”, said Jesus (Luke 12.49). We may well and rightly feel a touch of fear as we look into this “engine room” – the life so fragile and so indestructible, so joyful and so costly. But this is the life of all things, full of grace and truth, the life of the everlasting Word of God; to those who receive him he will give the right, the liberty, to live with his life, and to kindle on earth the flame of his love.

Choose Life: Christmas and Easter Sermons in Canterbury Cathedral (2013), pp.23-24, 30, Bloomsbury.

            This image – the Child in the Manger (with its counterpart, the Suffering Servant on the Cross) – is what has inspired, advanced and sustained all that is best in Western culture, because it speaks to us of a God who is ceaseless, boundless Love, and One who has not only validated but sanctified human life by entering into it as a poor and helpless babe. The Nativity of Christ speaks to us of the Incarnation in a way that, due to its particularity, connects us with a worldview wherein all life is precious, models of power are subverted, and love is what lies at the heart of ultimate reality. It challenges us to see further than those who love us in return, moves us to open our hearts to the weak and displaced, and provides us with something in which we can hope in even the direst circumstances.

Even those who do not believe in the basic truths enshrined in the feast of Christmas still associate it with warmth, love, sharing and charity, and rightly so – it stands for all these things. But if such principles are to remain at the centre of our culture, sustaining all that is best in its foundations and informing all good that may come in the future, we cannot allow the cold heart of secularism to take centre stage. Christmas speaks of warmth and joy because it speaks of Christ the Lord, born in and amongst the poor and the weak, Love Incarnate, who offers hope to all who seek Him. If we really value all that is best, and that is most human in our world, we will resist the temptation to throw off the restraints of religion and instead allow Our Lord to ‘kindle on earth the flame of his love’, that thereby He may once again warm our hearts to love alike.

Benedict XVI and T. S. Eliot: The Cruciform Love of Christmas

mkenny114:

Re-blogged from the beginning of Advent last year. An interesting (hopefully) comparison between Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi’ and Pope Benedict’s writing on the Nativity of Our Lord.

Originally posted on Journey Towards Easter:

As we are now officially in the season of Advent, and can turn our minds towards the birth of Christ, I thought it might be a good time to consider what Christmas means. Part of the problem of trying to ascertain what Christmas means in its essence, is that there are so many overlapping themes that surround it. Putting to one side the secular themes of merriness, goodwill and (of course) rampant commercialism, the traditional and theological meaning of the birth of Christ is often not easy to categorise in a straightforward fashion either.

Amidst the instantly recognisable motifs built around and stemming from the Incarnation, such as joy, hope, salvation, kingship, peace, and of course the Parousia (the Latin translation of which is Adventus), there is also another theme that is, if not forgotten, then often overlooked. T. S. Eliot draws attention to this particular aspect of Christmas…

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Saint Claude de la Colombiere: The Son of God Searches For Us

Following on from the theme of yesterday’s post – the attempt to place oneself in and imaginatively engage with the events of the Nativity of Our Lord – I would like to share today an extract from a homily given by Saint Claude de la Colombiere (1641 – 1682), in which he urges us to reflect on what it means for Our Lord to be the Shepherd to the scattered flock of mankind. Saint Claude was born into a fairly well-off family in Saint-Symphorien-d’Ozon, within the urban area of Lyons. After an early inner struggle, he asked to be received into the Society of Jesus (having attended a Jesuit secondary school) and entered their novitiate at Avignon. Whilst there he learned much about the various political and religious conflicts of the time (e.g.; Louis XIV’s attack on the papal states and the growth of Jansenism) – such edification would serve him well later in life.

In 1674, he made his solemn profession as a Jesuit, and from this time developed a strong devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Shortly afterwards, when he was appointed spiritual director to the nuns of the Monastery of the Visitation at Paray-le-Monial, he came into contact with Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque, and was thus able to empathise with her position, befriending her and aiding her in understanding the visions that she had received. As well as his talents as a confessor and spiritual director though, his preaching had become well regarded, for its clarity and beauty. It was on this basis that he was sent to England in 1676 to be official preacher to the household of Mary of Modena, Duchess of York and wife of James II, the last Catholic King of England.

Unfortunately, the English climate and the zeal with which he threw himself into his work contributed to ill-health, and this was exacerbated by his being thrown into jail after being implicated in the ‘Popish Plot’ fabricated by Titus Oates in 1678. As he was a subject of the French King and a member of the English royal court, he was expelled back to France instead of being executed, but by this point his health had been wrecked, and he died soon after returning to his home country, back at Paray-le-Monial, at the suggestion of Saint Margaret Mary, with whom he had continued to correspond. In the light of Saint Claude’s extraordinary efforts to return souls back to the sheepfold of Christ, the following passage thus takes on an extra poignancy.

In this extract from a homily preached to the Duchess of York and the royal household, Saint Claude counsels them/us to imagine with what eagerness God looks for His lost sheep, with what persistence He continues to hound us after we repeatedly turn away from Him, and the great tenderness and love that we see in His search for us. At this time of Advent, Saint Claude’s meditation is most apposite – for this is the time we reflect upon how God came down to us in the humility of the Incarnation, and attempt to imagine the great Love which motivates such an act of meekness and mercy. The God of the Cross and of the Manger is the One with which we have to do, and He will never stop His search for us, never stop humbling Himself in order to bring us home:

Imagine to yourself the sadness of the poor shepherd whose sheep has strayed. The only thing to be heard in the fields round about is the call of this unfortunate lad who, having abandoned the better part of the flock, runs about in woods and hills, passes by thicket and bush, mourning and calling out as hard as he can, unable to make up his mind to go back until he has found his sheep again and led it back to the fold.

Here is what the Son of God did when men had gone astray through their disobedience from their Creator’s way of behaving. He came down to earth and did not stint either care or labour to restore us again to the state from which we had fallen. It is what he still does daily for those who separate themselves from him by sin. He tracks them down, so to speak, never ceasing to call them back until he has restored them to the way of salvation. And indeed, if he did not wear himself out in this way, you well know what would become of us after the first mortal sin: it would be impossible for us to come back again after it. It is he who has to make all the advances, who must show us his grace, who must follow after us, who must invite us to take pity on ourselves, without which we would never dream of asking his mercy…

The zeal with which God pursues us is undoubtedly the result of a very great mercy. But the sweetness by which this zeal is accompanied shows an even more wonderful goodness. Notwithstanding the immense desire he has to cause us to return, he never uses force; he only makes use of gentleness for this purpose. In all the Gospel I see no sinner who was invited to repent except by endearments and kindness.

Courtesy of Daily Gospel

Joseph Brodsky: A Nativity Poem

Joseph Brodsky (1940 – 1996) was born into a Jewish family in Leningrad, but later settled in the United States after being expelled from the Soviet Union in 1972 (prior to this, his work had been confiscated on many an occasion, he was interrogated, arrested, institutionalised and regularly accused of being ‘anti-Soviet’). His poetry, implicitly and explicitly, often referred to or employed religious themes, although his actual religious affiliation or identity remains uncertain. What we can be reasonably sure of is that Brodsky identified very strongly with Christian morality and its particular view of human existence – our place in the universe and the way in which we relate to God. Thus, when he uses specifically Christian imagery in his poetry, it is not just as a vehicle for exploring some vague existential questioning – the images and language are taken seriously for what they are.

This is not to say that he was by any means clear with respect to what he believed about God, only that he strongly identified with Western ethics, thought and culture, and recognised the central imaginative role Christianity has played in shaping those things. It seems strange to me personally how one can keep the two apart, but he, as many poets before and after him have done, seemed to be able to recognise the power of certain symbols and motifs, particularly in terms of how they provide us with an effective means of speaking about ultimate reality, without actually committing himself to the metaphysics or system of beliefs that is built into that kind of language. At any rate, the important thing to note is that he took Christian narrative and language seriously, and did not just use them as convenient metaphors due to the lack of any available secular grammar to say what he wanted to say.

In essence, one could say that Brodsky was, whilst perhaps not a man committed to any particular religion, someone deeply captivated by the ‘religious sense’ and that he found in Christianity a range of imaginative resources that resonated with what he felt about the world more than any other religion. It was (amongst other things) the recurrence of religious language in his poetry that led him to be accused of ‘anti-Soviet’ thinking, and so it is hard to find any sympathy with those who view him as an entirely secular thinker and/or poet (one can even read testimony to his being committed to more than just Christian language and imagery here). Most pertinent for this post though is the fact that from 1961 until his death, he regularly wrote poems about Christmas – the Nativity was something that seemed to have a great hold on him.

One of those poems, simply titled Nativity Poem (the version I have copied here is one translated by Seamus Heaney) is a wonderful exercise in imaginative engagement with the Mystery of Christmas. Comparable to the way in which the Ignatian school of spirituality recommends that we try and imagine ourselves actually being an actor in one of the episodes from the Gospels (e.g.; either as a bystander, or as one being addressed by Our Lord), Brodsky here asks us to imagine (and he uses that word a total of seven times throughout the poem, giving it a real sense of thrust and urgency) the night of the Birth of Christ, drawing our attention to small details in background and foreground. He calls us to consider things like farming tools in the corner of the manger, the cold of the night and ‘the blankness of hunger’, giving a vivid sense of the Nativity as present reality.

Another insightful touch is Brodsky’s comparison of the Three Magi as ‘three beams’ following the Star and closing in on the Infant Christ, like three rays of light narrowing as they hone back in to their source – the wisdom of the world returning to the fount from which all wisdom comes, and a precursor of the Gentiles flocking to the Lord of all Nations. Most perceptive (and touching) of all though are the closing lines of the poem, where Brodsky draws a parallel between the homelessness of the Holy Family and the homelessness of the Son of God, who divested Himself of the honour and power that is natural to Him as God, and limited Himself in the weak vessel of our humanity. Lowly and poor is how He comes to us, stripped not just of earthly privileges, but of those which are due to Him as the very source of Life:

 

Imagine striking a match that night in the cave:

Imagine crockery, try to make use of its glaze

To feel cold cracks in the floor, the blankness of

hunger.

Imagine the desert – but the desert is everywhere.

 

Imagine striking a match in that midnight cave,

The fire, the farm beasts in outline, the farm tools

and stuff;

And imagine, as you towel your face in enveloping

folds,

Mary, Joseph, and the Infant in swaddling clothes.

 

Imagine the kings, the caravans’ stilted procession

As they make for the cave, or, rather, three beams

closing in

And in on the star; the creaking of loads, the clink

of a cowbell;

(No thronging of Heaven as yet, no peal of the bell

 

That will ring in the end for the Infant once he has

earned it).

Imagine the Lord, for the first time, from darkness,

and stranded

Immensely in distance, recognising Himself in

the Son

Of Man: His homelessness plain to him now in a

homeless one.

Saint Basil the Great on Scripture and Tradition

Saint Basil of Caesarea (329 – 379), also known as Saint Basil the Great, due to his highly significant work on early Christian dogmatics (particularly with respect to the Holy Trinity) and his great influence on Eastern monasticism, is remembered (together with Saint Gregory and Saint John Chrysostom) as one of the ‘Three Holy Hierarchs’ in the East and is recognised as a Doctor of the Church by both the Catholic and Orthodox churches. As well as providing valuable testimony for us today regarding the faith and practice of the early Church in general, he is also therefore a voice with a particular amount of authority, fighting as he did to preserve the Trinitarian and Christological doctrines that are foundational to the beliefs of all Christians, regardless of denomination.

The following passage then, in which he discusses the relationship between Scripture and Tradition, should not be discarded lightly. In it Saint Basil reminds those he writes to that Scripture is itself part of a wider body of teaching handed down from the Apostles – it does not detract from the authority of the written teaching to remember that there is also unwritten Tradition (which, as Basil says, ‘has the same force for true piety’) but is a reminder that the authority of the Church to pass on that body of teaching (written and unwritten) is logically prior to the authority of Scripture itself. This runs contrary to a commonly held, though seldom explained, Protestant principle, namely that whilst we may recognise that the Church wrote, preserved and canonised the Bible, this does not enjoin us to recognise the authority vested in the Church which allowed it to do so.

The extent to which Saint Basil emphasises how important unwritten traditions are in the life of the Church, and how widespread knowledge of this principle was, should make it clear just how far those Christians who repudiate Sacred Tradition have diverged from the historic Faith. His listing of the various practices common in the Church but that are not found in Scripture should also give any sola scriptura Christian cause to consider how different their interpretation of faith and worship is from that of the early Church, as well as the extent to which modern churches employ modes of worship which are equally extra-biblical, but that lack any connection to historic, orthodox Christianity.

Saint Basil also provides us with an interesting argument for why a manual (or such like) of the practices he gives examples of was not compiled – that the liturgical traditions he lists were preserved in the Church via unwritten means because they pertained to something too holy and too precious for the uninitiated to be privy too (i.e.; many of the traditions not found in Scripture were not written down precisely because they were so highly valued by the believing community and thus could only be accessed once a commitment to that community had been made).

At any rate, as we approach Christmas, and the usual cries of such-and-such a practise recommended by the Church being unbiblical or ‘just’ tradition, it is good to be reminded of the venerable nature of the unwritten teachings we receive in and through the Church, the wider context in which we must see Scripture as existing, and from whence it draws its authority in the first place:

Of the beliefs and practices preserved in the Church, whether by tacit sanction, or by public decree, we have some delivered from written teaching; others we have received as delivered to us “in a mystery” from the tradition of the Apostles; and both classes have the same force for true piety. No one will dispute these; no one, at any rate, who has even the slightest experience of the institutions of the Church. If we tried to depreciate the customs lacking written authority, on the ground that they have but little validity, we should find ourselves unwittingly inflicting vital injury on the Gospel: or rather reducing official definition to a mere form of words.

For example, to mention the first and commonest instance – who has given us written instructions to sign, with the sign of the cross, those who have set their hope on the name of the Lord Jesus? What written instructions have we for turning to the east in prayer? Which of the saints has left to us, in writing, the words of the invocation at the displaying of the bread of the Eucharist, and the cup of the blessing? For to be sure, we are not content with the record of the Apostle and the Gospel, but we add, by way of preface and conclusion, other elements which we have received from the unwritten teaching, and we regard them as having great importance for the performance of the sacrament. We bless the water of baptism, and the oil of the chrism, and moreover we bless the person who is being baptised. On whose written instructions? Is it not on the authority of silent and secret tradition? And what of the anointing with oil itself? What written word rejoined that? And whence comes the custom of triple immersion? And with regard to the other rites of baptism, from what scripture do we obtain the renunciation of Satan and his angels?

Does this not come from this unpublished and secret teaching? Our fathers, by silence, preserved this teaching from inquisitive meddlers, having been well instructed to safeguard, by silence, the awful solemnity of these mysteries. It was scarcely likely that a public display, in the shape of written documents, should be made of teaching about things at which the uninitiated are not even allowed to look…

…Moses had the wisdom to know that contempt readily falls on the trite and the easily accessible, while eager interest tends naturally to attach to the remote and the unusual. In the same way the Apostles and Fathers, who at the beginning laid down ordinances concerning the Church, were concerned to safeguard the solemnity of the mysteries, by secrecy and reticence; for what is published for the casual hearing of the general public is no mystery at all.

from De Spiritu Sancto, 66 in The Later Christian Fathers (1987), pp.59-60, Oxford University Press.