The Meeting of Heaven and Earth: On Particularity and Familiar Things

It is one of the joys of earthly life to take comfort in familiarity – the particular feel of a favourite chair, well worn by years of use; certain scents or sounds that evoke happy memory; the re-reading of books that have nurtured our imaginations in the past and continue to feed them in the present – and the joy we take in such things reflects the more general delight we take in the concrete and particular. The experience of fully encountering this moment – this place and these things at this time – communicates to us not only a feeling of assurance but also a sense of the sacred (and perhaps the former because of the latter). What degree of continuity will there be though, if any, between these experiences and life in Heaven; and what are we to make of the tension between our love of the concrete and our being called to renounce attachment to things in general – can that tension find a resolution?

The first thing to note is that, due to the Incarnation, Christianity is necessarily committed to the material – it is a deeply sacramental religion, with the hypostatic union of the human and divine natures in Our Lord providing the foundation for a system of mediated grace that flows from the Church (itself a thoroughly material entity) via the sacraments which it has received the authority to provide. Whilst the deeply physical nature of the means by which we receive grace to aid us on our way to God is denied vociferously by a great many Protestant churches (as well as the need for there to be any mediation at all) this remains a basic fact of historic, orthodox Christianity – a fact that is of great importance for understanding how God intends to bring us into relationship with Him, and which bears continual witness to the nature of the Incarnation itself.

This being the case then, our love of material things cannot be wholly wrong, even if it may need some qualification – matter, already in some sense hallowed by virtue of it being created by God and said by Him to be good, has received further consecration due to God having united to Himself our human nature, entered into our material world, and further blessed it by setting apart certain elements of that world (bread, wine, water, oil) for the effective communication of His own divine life. Such qualification that may be required is where the question of attachment comes in – if matter is something good, and even blessed, it is not our enjoyment of it that may lead us astray, but our being attached to it to the extent that we need it to be happy. If we take pleasure in sitting in an old armchair, this is a fine thing in and of itself, but if we begin to seek out such a feeling, then we have become, in a small but significant way, addicted to it – it is not the chair, nor the feeling of comfort that it gives us that is the problem, but the placing of our happiness in the re-creation of that feeling.

The attachment we feel towards such experiences and things (whether they be good, like the reading of a favourite book in a beloved armchair, or sinful, like drinking ourselves into a stupor) is due to our concupiscence – the preferring of lower goods (or even the perversion of good things) in contrast to the things reason tells us make for our highest good. Basically, we give too much of our affection and desire towards the things God has made, instead of He who made them; and this is due to a prior flaw in human nature, which is born of Original Sin. So, the problem is not our delight in the things of this world (the concrete is, as we have seen, not only good but is further blessed by virtue of the Incarnation) but our forgetfulness of where these particular goods receive their goodness from. Enjoying creation is a good and holy thing; preferring it to the Creator is not.

With respect to familiarity then, and our taking comfort in it, there should not be a problem in our doing so as long as we enjoy such things with a spirit of gratitude – if each time we nestle down in that favourite armchair of ours (sorry for repeating this example, but I really do love a good, well-worn armchair; the enjoyment of a bacon sandwich would work equally well) we recognise that these things, indeed anything is a gift of God, and thus our enjoyment becomes properly expressed within the context of thanks that He has provided us with them. This then ties into the question of what continuity there might be between these concrete experiences, mediated by our senses, and the heavenly life; as if our enjoyment of earthly things is properly ordered only when it is rightly aligned to their Provider, then any continuity between them and life in Heaven must be on that basis too.

Saint Augustine, in the concluding chapters of his De Civitate Dei, considers what life in Heaven might be like, and thereby the related question of what our resurrected life might be like – for another corroboration of the goodness of materiality is that we, along with the rest of the creation, will be reinstated and transfigured; Heaven will not be a place of ghosts, but of substance. What that substance will be, and the way in which our substantial but spiritualised bodies will interact with that new world, is what Saint Augustine goes on to consider (in Chapter 29 of Book XII), and in doing so (particularly in the second part of the excerpt below) he provides some illumination on this question of continuity:

If the eyes of the spiritual body have no more power than the eyes which we now possess, manifestly God cannot be seen with them. They must be of a very different power if they can look upon that incorporeal nature which is not contained in any place, but is all in every place. For though we say that God is in heaven and on earth, as He Himself says by the prophet, “I fill heaven and earth,” we do not mean that there is one part of God in heaven and another part on earth; but He is all in heaven and all on earth, not at alternate intervals of time, but both at once, as no bodily nature can be. The eye, then, must have a vastly superior power – the power not of keen sight, such as is ascribed to serpents or eagles, for however keenly these animals see, they can discern nothing but bodily substances – but the power of seeing things incorporeal…

…Wherefore it may very well be, and it is thoroughly credible, that we shall in the future world see the material forms of the new heavens and the new earth in such a way that we shall most distinctly recognise God everywhere present and governing all things, material as well as spiritual, and shall see Him, not as we now understand the invisible things of God, by the things which are made, and see Him darkly, as in a mirror, and in part, and rather by faith than by bodily vision of material appearances, but by means of the bodies we shall wear and which we shall see wherever we turn our eyes. As we do not believe, but see that the living men around us who are exercising vital functions are alive, though we cannot see their life without their bodies, but see it most distinctly by means of their bodies, so, wherever we shall look with those spiritual eyes of our future bodies, we shall then, too, by means of bodily substances behold God, though a spirit, ruling all things.

The City of God (2000), pp.861-863, Modern Library.

                Saint Augustine goes on to elaborate as to how this transparency of the material to the Spirit underpinning and vitalising it will lead to an increased intimacy between all created things – because God will be vividly apparent to us in and through the new heavens and new earth, each part of this realm will be for us something upon which our gaze may (as George Herbert writes in his poem The Elixir) ‘through it pass, and then the heav’n espy’; also communication between persons will be clear and immediate, unencumbered by the self-possession of sin, and enabled by the prior communion with God which all shall enjoy. Furthermore, in Chapter 30 of the same book, Augustine goes on to describe something of the freedom we will have in this communion, with its concomitant lack of attachment to things for their own sake:

What power of movement such bodies shall possess, I have not the audacity rashly to define, as I have not the ability to conceive. Nevertheless I will say that in any case, both in motion and at rest, they shall be, as in their appearance, seemly; for into that state nothing which is unseemly shall be admitted. One thing is certain, the body shall forthwith be wherever the spirit wills, and the spirit shall will nothing which is unbecoming either to the spirit or to the body. True honour shall be there, for it shall be denied to none who is worthy, nor yielded to any unworthy; neither shall any unworthy person so much as sue for it, for none but the worthy shall be there. True peace shall be there, where no one shall suffer opposition either from himself or from any other. God Himself, who is the Author of virtue, shall there be its reward; for, as there is nothing greater or better, He has promised Himself.

ibid, pp.864-865.

                Whereas in this life we experience God only partially, and do so through the things He has made, in Heaven we shall ‘see the material forms of the new heavens and the new earth in such a way that we shall most distinctly recognise God everywhere present and governing all things, material as well as spiritual’ – everything will be a window onto Him, and thus we shall enjoy all the things of the new heaven and earth precisely because they show us the divine life, not because of the things themselves. Furthermore, concupiscence will no longer be an issue, for ‘the body shall forthwith be wherever the spirit wills, and the spirit shall will nothing which is unbecoming either to the spirit or to the body’ and so nothing will stand in the way of that perfect alignment with the life of God that is our true destiny.

Therefore, if what Saint Augustine writes is correct, our enjoyment of the concrete and particular will not only find continuity with the heavenly life, but will thereby find its perfection – if the goodness of such earthly experiences can be located in our recognition that they come from God and to some extent bring us closer to Him, then how much more will the goodness of those very same things be realised in a context where they show us their dependence upon Him completely. In Heaven then, just as our sensory experience will be taken to a level beyond what it is now, so that we will be able to thereby know spiritual truth as well, so will the mediatory role of the rest of creation find its perfection.

This then would provide a definite point of continuity for us, linking the partially revelatory joys of familiar things and experiences to the unmitigated glorification all creation will provide in Heaven. However, although the prominence that is accorded to Saint Augustine is well-deserved, and his arguments here cogent, his is still but an opinion (albeit a very learned one), and the true nature of Heaven must by the nature of the case remain mysterious to us – how much stock can we actually put in what he says? It seems to me that, although it is true that we know vastly less of Heaven than we ever can hope to know in this life, that the arguments put forward by Augustine are based on sound dogmatic principles (i.e.; the goodness of creation, the resurrection of the body) and also that the central point of his conclusion cannot really be disputed.

The key to all he says is this – that whatever we encounter in Heaven will be in some way, though in truth we know not how, continuous with this life, but that the root of this continuity is God. If anything of this life survives into the next, it will be because it spoke to us of God; if any experience or mode of being finds some analogy in Heaven, it will be because it showed us Him – what makes Heaven the blessed place that it will be is God alone, because ‘as there is nothing greater or better, He has promised Himself.’ All things in Heaven will be there to glorify Him who is our greatest, and, in the end, our only good. That many things in this life already do speak to us of Him in part should give us some confidence that they will therefore also play a part in the hereafter; but whatever the reality is, we will find that it fulfils and far exceeds all that has thus far given us joy.

Protestantism, Simplicity and the Sacraments

Putting aside theological and ecclesiological differences, one thing seems to leap out in assessing the issues that separate Protestantism from other, more historic forms of Christianity, and that is simplicity. There are, famously, a wide range of different expressions of the Protestant principle, but they all share a common commitment to presenting a more direct, stripped down, immediate and fuss-free version of the Gospel. This is reflected both in the theology underpinning Protestantism (sola fide, rejection of saintly intercession, etc) and often in the types of devotion one finds therein: there are not really many distinctive schools of spirituality such as can be found in Catholicism, and this itself perhaps stems from the directness encouraged by Protestant theology – you just go straight to Jesus, and any ‘methods’ to aid that communion may well be seen as getting in the way.

As well as being a distinctive feature of Protestantism, it is probably its most attractive characteristic as well – the idea of going straight to God without having to worry about how one has prepared to do so, expressing oneself in an extempore fashion, and, in terms of public worship, not having to bother with all the customs and guidelines that the historic churches bother about. Such an approach is greatly appealing, and moreover, is based on fundamental truth regarding our Faith – we should feel confident of going straight to God, the way to Him has been opened for us, and we very much do not need pre-written prayers, liturgical ritual or prescribed spiritual methods in order for Him to hear us or us to grow closer to Him. The problem with such an approach however, is not that it is wrong, but that it is incomplete.

Just as our salvation, whilst grounded absolutely in the grace of God, requires our cooperation and is thus an ongoing process (something affirmed by Catholicism and Orthodoxy but, in terms of what its theology actually admits, if not what many of its adherents necessarily believe, denied by ‘classical’ Protestantism), so that living out of our relationship with God, though based on His absolute admittance into His fellowship, is not quite so simple as it may at first seem, and for our benefit requires it to be more than just an individual effort (i.e.; the prayers of others, the wisdom of previous ages) and also thus requires it to be more complex than it would at first appear. Our communion with God is a simple procedure – the door is open, and He welcomes us with open arms – but if we wish to deepen our relationship with Him, the intercessory aid and inherited wisdom of others is something we would be imprudent to do away with.

Strangely enough, one of the motivating principles behind the Protestant Reformation was that all Christians, not just priests and religious, should be encouraged to lead a fully integrated life of devotion – that holiness should not be something for one portion of society, but that all should be allowed and urged to deepen their relationship with God. I shall not address here the extent to which people were already allowed to do just that prior to the Reformation (though I would recommend both Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars and Christopher Haigh’s The English Reformation as well as two contemporary articles here and here for relevant information) but the actual outcome of the changes that occurred does not seem to have encouraged a greater amount or degree of devotion, either public or private. Contrary to expectations, getting rid of the monasteries and ridding societies of ‘clericalism’ does not seem to have led to an increase in contemplatives in the regions where these changes were made.

Furthermore, when coming from a purely practical perspective, it can be seen that going to meet God in prayer without aid or preparation, if it doesn’t lead to a lack of intensity or depth in one’s prayer life (which sadly does seem to have been the case in a great many instances – cultures where Protestantism took root have not been known for intense devotion, and have produced relatively few truly saintly characters of note), can instead lead to anxiety or inconsistency. A prayer life must be slowly and steadily cultivated over long periods of time (indeed, more truly over one’s whole life) and to have at hand familiar prayers or techniques can help to focus one’s devotions as well as providing a kind of spiritual foundation from which to build – a comfortable and sure base to place oneself upon (or rather within) so that the heart and mind are centred and less prone to wander or worry about how to articulate the various fleeting thoughts and emotions that come to mind during prayer.

The issue of familiar prayers and devotions brings me back to a point briefly mentioned at the outset of this post, and one with which I would like to conclude – the idea that the spiritual life is never individualistic, but always rooted in a larger context, that of the Church’s life now and through the ages. We are linked, through our Baptism, into a ‘mystical body’ and are thus connected by bonds more secure than any we might encounter in this life to all other Christians, both now and who have gone before us (such bonds are what make the invocation of the saints not only a wise thing to do, but also an act of fraternal charity). The prayers and spiritual practices handed down to us are thus not only eminently useful in bringing us closer to God, but are hallowed by centuries of usage – when we pray the Sub Tuum Praesidium, the Jesus Prayer or Veni Creator Spiritus; when we pray the Rosary or use the Sulpician Method, we are treading well-tested and blessed ground.

This issue of our corporate life as Christians finds its most significant expression in the sacramental life – at the very roots of our Faith, God never intended us to go it alone, but to be bound to one another in the life of the Church, and for His grace to be given to us in order to help us on our way via certain material means, namely the sacraments. This is where the issue of the Church and its authority becomes important, and it is also the point at which the Protestant world can be roughly divided into two separate kinds – those for whom the sacraments are important, who believe that they are divinely ordained channels of grace (e.g.; Lutherans, Anglicans) and those who see them as important symbols but not in any way necessary for salvation. For the latter camp, whilst I would note that their view is profoundly ahistorical, it is a very real point of view and so worth citing – nevertheless, from this particular perspective, the nature and authority of the Church is not really relevant.

For sacramental Protestants however, the nature and authority of the Church is a very important question. Most of these would only accept Baptism and Eucharist as valid sacraments, but given that all the other sacraments tend to flow from these two (especially the Holy Eucharist) there is enough common ground here to illustrate the point. In the case of Baptism, if one accepts that it effects regeneration, then this requires the nature of the Church to be more than just the sum total of those who have truly saving faith in Christ – as well as this (necessarily invisible) aspect, the Church must also have a visible aspect; and as it is highly impractical to survey the number of those who have been baptised, this also requires the visible aspect to be institutional – there must be somewhere we can point to and say ‘this is the Church.’ Indeed, the New Testament itself assumes that the network of various local churches are subsumed under the unity of the one Church (a point well argued here) and that this wider body is something plainly visible to the world.

When we come to the Holy Eucharist though, we encounter a different, albeit related issue – that of authority. Regardless of what manner of change it is believed occurs during consecration, if one is a sacramental Christian then the fact that some kind of real change does occur, and that in the reception of the consecrated elements Christ in some way gives of Himself to the communicant, are of central importance. In such a situation then, we must ask ourselves how that change/conveyance of grace is brought about – obviously it is God who gives Himself and God who is the primary actor in this, but the words of consecration must be said by someone – can anyone do it? If so, why not allow lay presidency at the altar; why restrict such an act to the minister? It could be argued that a certain amount of learning is required to preach and teach, but not for this – in this case only a few words need to be said and the celebrant is just the one whom God works through.

If one has a high view of the Eucharist then, it seems to me that it will not do to have just anyone celebrating it, and that someone with some kind of authority is required to do so; otherwise we run the risk of either not knowing when a real consecration has occurred, or of Our Lord being just as present whoever invokes the words of consecration, regardless of what they mean to the person saying them or the degree of reverence in which they hold the act in the first place. The validity of a Eucharist is not dependent on the views of the celebrant, so we would have in this latter case Our Lord being genuinely and fully present in circumstances where His presence is either ignored or even maligned. Clearly, in keeping with the need for there to be a visible Church, the sacramental life assumes a Church that can proclaim and deliver the sacraments with authority, in order that such situations be avoided.

So, regardless of what one thinks about official pronouncements on doctrine and the relationship between individual conscience and ecclesiastical governance, if one believes the sacraments to be a necessary aspect of the Christian life then one must engage with the question of where those claiming to consecrate the Eucharist get the authority to do so – i.e.; where and how does the Church receive her authority; where and what is the Church? If you believe the Sacrament you receive in Holy Communion is valid, then where does the minister’s authority come from – if from Christ, then how; how is it separate from the authority given to all believers? If that original authority of Christ is mediated through His Church, then where can the Church be found and what are the channels whereby the authority necessary to give Our Lord to us in bread and wine is transmitted?

These are questions of utmost importance, and not to be neglected, nor compromised on. But, to reconnect with the original theme of this post, they also show how much of an illusion the promise of unfettered simplicity that Protestantism often seems to offer is. In fact, even the least sacramental of Protestant churches recognise the importance of the Eucharist in some, albeit limited, sense, and many of the newer denominations, whilst formally rejecting ritual, have only embraced a more contemporary, rock-concert style of worship that is just as regularised as the most ancient of liturgies. Furthermore, a great number of evangelical churches are rediscovering various aspects of Sacred Tradition (prayers, sacramentals, devotions, writings of the saints), and finding them to be excellent aids to devotion. Just as the motivations behind the ‘stripped-down’ Gospel are not wrong, only incomplete, so are its manifestations – they are not wholly wrong, they only lack the fullness which enables true simplicity of sprit, the communal support that aids a deeper communion, the genuine catholicity of the Catholic Church.

Candlemas: A Feast of Light, Hope and Memory

Today is the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, where we remember the presentation of the Holy Child at the Temple in Jerusalem, performed forty days after His birth – this completed Mary’s ritual purification after childbirth and redeemed the first-born son, so that the Mosaic Law could be observed (c.f.; Leviticus 12; Exodus 13:11-16) and all righteousness fulfilled (c.f.; Matthew 3:15; Galatians 4:4-5). Our Lady too, as faithful handmaiden of the Lord, sought no exemption from the requirements of the Law, though no purification was actually required on her part; in fact, there was no need for women to journey to the Temple for purification, nor did Saint Joseph require any, and so Saint Luke presumably only mentions all these legal fulfilments together (c.f.; 2:22 – ‘their purification’) in order to arrange his material in a way that has more theological impact, and to underline the unity of the Holy Family.

What has traditionally been given most significance in this narrative though, is the Nunc Dimmitis of Saint Simeon, who, in a moment of revelation after years of waiting for the authentic fulfilment of God’s promises, recognises the Christ-child as the One in whom that fulfilment has arrived. Simeon asks that now he be allowed to depart from this world, as he has seen in Jesus its salvation, the ‘light to enlighten the Gentiles’ – he sees further than Saint Zechariah does in his Benedictus, which ends with the theme of light shining in the darkness (c.f.; Luke 1:76-79) and so lays the ground for the later insight. Simeon’s prophecy is actually what gave rise to the tradition of Groundhog Day, which is observed in North America (via an earlier tradition in Germany), as it came to be believed that February 2nd was in some way connected to the increase or decrease of sunlight.

What Simeon of course really meant (and which the folk tradition by no means denies, merely connecting the primary meaning with the deeply symbolic rhythms of nature) is that Christ would bring the light of salvation to all nations – that God’s promises were more universal than had heretofore been imagined. This enlightenment – the bringing of saving truth to the nations – has traditionally been symbolised by the blessing and lighting of candles, and this is why today’s feast is also known as Candlemas. What is interesting is just how powerful such symbols can be, and how important the commemoration of the events of salvation history, with the various symbolic acts and rituals that accompany such commemoration, is for faith; how important it is to sanctify memory by the repeated encounters with the dates of the Church’s calendar.

In a reflection on the season of Advent, Pope Benedict XVI (then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) considers the part that this engagement of ours with the sacred calendar has in general, and the role that memory plays in the sustenance and deepening of faith:

The purpose of the Church’s year is continually to rehearse her great history of memories, to awaken the heart’s memory so that it can discern the star of hope. All the feasts in the Church’s calendar are events of remembrance and hence events of hope. These events, of such great significance for mankind, which are preserved and opened up by faith’s calendar, are intended to become personal memories of our own life history through the celebration of holy seasons by means of liturgy and custom. Our personal memories are nourished by mankind’s great memories; in turn, it is only by translating them into personal terms that these great memories are kept alive. Man’s ability to believe always depends in part on faith having become dear on the path of life, on the humanity of God having manifested itself through the humanity of men.

Seek That Which Is Above: Meditations Through The Year (1986), pp.11-12, Ignatius Press.

                In what Pope Benedict writes here we see the way in which the liturgical year helps to make the events of salvation history combine with our own personal history, so that the way we see our lives is coloured by those sacred events and our hopes gradually become aligned with the hopes of people like Simeon, Zechariah and Our Lady. Commemoration of these holy events, year by year, is indeed a way of nourishing our souls, and is so because of our internalising them, by ‘faith having become dear on the path of life.’ Just as we use sacramentals to bless and sanctify the ordinary acts of our day and thus remind us of the greater context in which we live, the observance of the sacred calendar by means of rituals like that of the lighting and procession at Candlemas brings the events of our daily lives into a grander narrative, so that our hopes become transfigured, more oriented to our ultimate ends.

Referring directly to the feast of Candlemas in another address, Pope Benedict first laments the fact that such an ancient festival, which used to have deep roots in rural communities, has become to a certain extent forgotten in our time. In considering the biblical roots of the feast though, he again connects its theme with hope – that in the meeting with Saint Simeon at the Temple, we see not only a particular encounter, but the transition from the Old Covenant, which was limited to one people in a certain place and time, into the New, where the Church shares the light of Christ to all nations. He then goes on to connect this universal hope to the theme of light which is so vividly celebrated at Candlemas:

This brings us to a second aspect of this day which the liturgy illuminates. It takes up the words of Simeon when he calls this Child “a light to enlighten the Gentiles.” Accordingly this day was made a feast of candles. The warm candlelight is meant to be a tangible reminder of that greater light which, for and beyond all time, radiates from the figure of Jesus. In Rome this candle-lit procession supplanted a rowdy, dissolute carnival, the so-called Amburbale, which had survived from paganism right into Christian times. The pagan procession had magical features: it was supposed to effect the purification of the city and the repelling of evil powers. To remind people of this, the Christian procession was originally celebrated in black vestments and then in purple – until the Council’s reform. Thus the element of encounter, again, was evident in this procession: the pagan world’s wild cry for purification, liberation, deliverance from dark powers, meets the “light to enlighten the Gentiles”, the mild and humble light of Jesus Christ. The failing (and yet still active) aeon of a foul, chaotic, enslaved and enslaving world encounters the purifying power of the Christian message…

…The candle-lit procession in black garments, the symbolic encounter between chaos and light which it represents, should remind us of this truth and give us courage to see the supernatural, not as a waste of time, distracting us from the business of ameliorating the world, but as the only way in which meaning can be brought to bear on the chaotic side of life.

ibid, pp.26-27.

                The particular hope we remember in this feast is hope in the light of Christ – what we celebrate at Candlemas is that the desire for deliverance felt by all peoples is made available in and through the Child presented at the Temple to Simeon, and that He, the very logos of creation, can alone truly provide right order and integrity to our lives again, connecting us to a deeper truth and greater context so that we can be freed from the chaos and evil in the world. What Pope Benedict mentions regarding the surviving pagan festivals could equally be applied to our own time – there is still a desire to be delivered from the darkness, and yet still we look in all the wrong places. It is only the light of Christ which truly liberates and purifies, and yet we remain mired in other things.

The tradition of lighting candles at Candlemas thus remains a powerful reminder of what is offered to us in the revelation of Our Lord Jesus Christ. In Him there is freedom from real darkness – from a ‘chaotic, enslaved and enslaving world’ – and He is the way to a life that can be lived in harmony with the will of God, which, as it is the will ordained for all of creation, will bring us into right relation with all things. This reordering of self to God is the only way that we can find peace within our own selves, or with others, and it can only come about by surrendering our rebellious wills to Him. The chaos in the world around us is not a separate thing from the chaos which exists within us – they are profoundly interconnected, and the only way the world can be brought to balance is if we are made so first (c.f.; Matthew 6:33). For the promise that Simeon saw (and which we, by remembrance, marry with our own hopes) to be fully realised, we must let that light of Christ in, and let it work through us unto our neighbour.

John Keble: The Conversion of Saint Paul

This is a re-blog of a post from last year’s Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul – John Keble’s magnificent poem detailing the events of the Apostle’s encounter on the road to Damascus.

Journey Towards Easter

John Keble’s The Christian Year is a wonderful resource for reflecting on the feasts and memorials of the liturgical year. It seems to me to be a work that can provide great spiritual edification in a structured way that is deeply rooted in Scripture, and so is something I would recommend to Christians of any stripe. It is also a good example of the notoriously hard to pin down ‘Anglican patrimony’ that Anglicanorum Coetibus was created to try and preserve within a Catholic context. This patrimony has more to do with the textures and character of a lived heritage of music, poetry and liturgy than with any theological distinctiveness, and so Keble’s work speaks more eloquently of what is unique about Anglicanism than any doctrinal formulations proffered could do.

With respect to the piece below, today is the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul, and Keble’s poem reflects upon…

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Saint Francis de Sales: The Necessary Conditions of Prayer

As tomorrow is the feast day of Saint Francis de Sales, I thought I would share some of his counsel on prayer, taken from a series of sermons he gave to the Sisters of the Visitation of Holy Mary (an order which he co-founded with Saint Jane Frances de Chantal in 1610) at Annecy in 1615, by way of preparation for the day itself. Surprisingly, out of the many sermons he gave to the women religious there, only four of them were on the subject of prayer, but presumably the sisters were already well aware of his teaching in this area, having Saint Francis’ Spiritual Conferences (written specifically for the Sisters of the Visitation) and Treatise on the Love of God, both of which are replete with advice on the school of prayer. The four sermons that he delivered to them in person however, are on the goal of prayer, the spirit of prayer, the different kinds of prayer, and the heart of prayer – it is the second of these that I shall be referring to.

It is remarkable that, in his addresses to those in a religious order, Saint Francis’ tone, as well as the content of what he is delivering, is so similar to what he relates in more ‘popular’ books of devotion such as The Introduction to A Devout Life – whether counselling nuns or laity, not only is the essence of the spirituality he imparts very similar, but the way in which he suggests his advice be taken up and applied is also much alike. Furthermore, a benevolent and reassuring tone is present, as with all Saint Francis de Sales’ work. In his sermon on the spirit of prayer, Saint Francis discusses the conditions which are necessary in order that we might pray well – he does so after insisting that even the greatest sinners can pray, and that it is only the devil who cannot, as he is incapable of love:

All that remains is for us to state the necessary conditions to pray well. I know indeed that the ancients who treat this matter cite a great many such conditions; some count fifteen, others eight. But since this number is so large, I limit myself to mentioning only three. The first is that one be little in humility; the second that one be great in hope; and the third, that one be grafted onto Jesus Christ crucified…

In order to pray well, then, we must acknowledge that we are poor, and we must greatly humble ourselves; for do you not see how a marksman with a crossbow, when he wishes to discharge a large arrow, draws the string of his bow lower the higher he wants it to go? Thus must we do when we wish our prayer to reach Heaven; we must lower ourselves by the awareness of our nothingness.

The Sermons of Saint Francis de Sales: On Prayer (1985), pp.9-10, Tan Books.

                The insistence that we must first humble ourselves before we can pray well is grounded in the truth that if we do not recognise ourselves as nothing before God, we will not know our true condition and therefore our prayer will not be wholly sincere. If we do not know ourselves to exist moment to moment by the mercy of God, and that without Him we would be literally nothing, then our prayer will always to some extent be shaped by selfish desires and we will not ask for what we really need to progress in the spiritual life. This is why the only way we can save our life is by losing it – we must lose the illusion that our life is our own, so that we may thereby plant ourselves by life-giving streams and return to the true source of our existence (c.f.; Psalm 1:3).

The second condition of praying well mentioned by Saint Francis is that we be ‘great in hope’ – something that on the surface might seem paradoxical after his counsel to think of ourselves as nothing, but which is actually the logical conclusion of the first condition. The virtue of hope is in no earthly thing, least of all in ourselves, but in the grace and promises of God – so it is that the less we think of our own achievements and sense of self-sufficiency, the more we will place our hope in Him who holds all in the palm of His hand; hope and humility are in effect two sides of the same coin. Saint Francis also relates this condition to the primary theological virtue – that of charity, or love:

Let us pass on now to hope, which is the second necessary condition for praying well. The spouse coming up from the desert rises like a shoot or column of smoke, laden with myrrh. This represents hope, for even though myrrh gives off a pleasant odour, it is nevertheless bitter to the taste. Likewise, hope is pleasant since it promises that we shall one day possess what we long for, but it is bitter because we are not now enjoying what we love. Incense is far more appropriate as the symbol of hope, because, being placed upon fire, it always sends its smoke upward; likewise, it is necessary that hope be placed upon charity, otherwise it would no longer be hope, but rather presumption. Hope, like an arrow, darts up even to the gate of Heaven, but it cannot enter there because it is a virtue wholly of earth. If we want our prayer to penetrate Heaven we must whet the arrow with the grindstone of love.

ibid, pp.10-11.

                As Saint Francis says, hope, like faith, is something that will not be needed in Heaven, for there we will know as we are known, and will do so face to face (c.f.; 1 Corinthians 13:12-13). Love however is the very life of God Himself, and therefore will be the context in which we live in Heaven – it will be as oxygen is to us here on earth. This being so, our hope must always be married to love; otherwise, as Saint Francis writes, ‘it would no longer be hope, but presumption.’ For hope to really be oriented to God and be removed from any sense of self-orientation or worldly objectives, our hope must be grounded in a love of God qua God – we must place all our hope in Him because He is truly our greatest desire in Heaven or on earth, because He is our greatest good and the fulfilment of all we long for. Love of God is the animating spirit which guides all the spiritual life, and so guides the life of prayer in particular.

Finally, Saint Francis comes to the third condition, which is that we graft all our prayer onto the Person of Our Lord Jesus Christ. This last condition draws together the other two, as once we know that we cannot do anything of ourselves to gain eternal life, and that our hopes must be for and in God in order that they be authentic and permanent, we turn inevitably to the One who makes prayer to the Father possible, and makes those hopes we entertain a reality. It is in Our Lord, and through His Holy Cross, that we are redeemed, that the gulf between God and mankind has been bridged and that we are able to speak to God with confidence (c.f.; Hebrews 8:1-2; 9:23-26; 10:19-22):

Let us come to the third necessary condition. The angels say that the spouse is leaning upon her Lover; we have seen that for the last condition it is necessary to be grafted onto Jesus Christ crucified…

…When Jacob wished to obtain his father Isaac’s blessing, his mother made him prepare a kid in venison sauce because Isaac liked it [c.f.; Gen. 27:9-29]. She also made him wear the skins of the kid on his hands, because Esau, the elder son to whom the blessing belonged by right, was all hairy. She even made Jacob wear the scented garment destined for the eldest son of the home. She led him thus to her husband, who was blind. When Jacob asked for the blessing, Isaac felt his hands and cried aloud: “Ah, but I am in such pain! The voice I hear is that of my son Jacob, but the hands I feel are those of Esau.” And having smelled the scented garment, he said: “The good fragrance that I have savoured has given me such delight that I give my blessing to my son.” So too we, having prepared this spotless Lamb [c.f.; 1 Pet. 1:19] and having presented Him to the Eternal Father to satisfy His taste, when we ask for His blessing He will say, if we are clothed with the Blood of Jesus Christ: “The voice that I hear is Jacob’s, but the hands (which are our evil deeds) are those of Esau; nevertheless, because of the delight with which I savour the fragrance of his garment, I give him My blessing.” Amen.

ibid, pp.11-12.

                This wonderful use of typology to explain our reliance on the Sacrifice of Christ using the stories of the Old Testament reminds us that all the dealings of God with His people, imperfect though their behaviour may have been, points in various ways to the awesome fact that we would be reconciled to God only through His initiative. Though Rebecca’s clothing of Jacob in the garments of Esau was an act of deceit, it left behind in Sacred Scripture a powerful symbol of substitution and representation – the act by which one stood in the place of another, or in the case of Jacob’s son Joseph, in the place of the many (c.f.; Genesis 50:15-21). Saint Francis points in particular to the fragrance of Esau’s garments, which delighted Isaac, evoking the fragrance of sacrificial offerings, and thus the ultimate Sacrifice of obedience and love which Christ offered to the Father.

The Sacrifice of Christ, and the fact that the infinite love poured out in it so outweighs the vast array of disobedience and animosity we have placed between God and ourselves, is the only means we have of coming before Him in confidence that He will hear our prayer. It is because of this great Sacrifice that we are reminded of our rebellion and thus of the need to humble ourselves by way of turning away from that path, and because of it alone that we can have hope of eternal bliss with God in the hereafter. The love shown in Christ is our grounds for being able to pray at all, and it is the common thread that links the three conditions listed by Saint Francis de Sales – the love given to us in Christ makes communion with God possible, and the love we offer in return must be the ground and form of any response we make. Love given in response to love received – this is the spirit and heart of authentic Christian prayer, as Saint Francis details so well.

John Keble: Holy Baptism

As today is the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, and also the day of the week in which I like to post some poetry, it took a while for me to find something that fit both criteria. Just before I was about to give up, I remembered that John Keble’s Christian Year has a poem entitled Holy Baptism, which, although it doesn’t pertain directly to the Baptism of Christ, it does touch on that subject in that the Sacrament of Baptism is deeply linked to the Baptism of Our Lord. In our Baptism, we are buried into the very death of Christ, that we may in Him die to our sins, and are also raised with Him to new life (c.f.; Romans 6:3-14) – we are united to Our Lord so much so that we can now say we are ‘in’ Him and are part of His Body (c.f.; Ephesians 4:4-6), incorporated into His very life so much that our sufferings become one with His (c.f.; Colossians 1:24; Acts 9:5).

Jesus submitted to baptism Himself in order to ‘fulfil all righteousness’ (Matthew 3:15) – i.e.; so that the link between Old Covenant and New would be made perfect through His humble submission to all that those who would become His disciples would submit to. Just as He submitted Himself to the Law, so must He submit to all aspects of the New Law, that He may be ‘made like his brethren in every respect’ (Hebrews 2:17, c.f.; also 4:14-5:10). In doing this, He sanctified the waters (notably in the Jordan, the crossing of which by the Israelites into the Promised Land prefigures our entry into new life in Christ) and consecrated a rite that had until then only had a proclamatory and temporary effect – by uniting Himself to this rite, He made it efficacious for the salvation of souls, through union with Himself and His atoning death:

In his Passover Christ opened to all men the fountain of Baptism. He had already spoken of his Passion, which he was about to suffer in Jerusalem, as a “Baptism” with which he had to be baptized. The blood and water that flowed from the pierced side of the crucified Jesus are types of Baptism and the Eucharist, the sacraments of new life. From then on, it is possible “to be born of water and the Spirit” in order to enter the Kingdom of God.

Catechism of the Catholic Church: 1225

                The above section from the Catechism goes on to quote from Saint Ambrose of Milan, who sums up the importance of Baptism for us, and makes even more certain the connection between our being baptised, the Baptism of Our Lord, and His sacrificial death on the Cross – ‘See where you are baptized, see where Baptism comes from, if not from the cross of Christ, from his death. There is the whole mystery: he died for you. In him you are redeemed, in him you are saved’ (ibid). In our Baptism therefore we are united to the whole mystery of Faith, and this profound union was made manifest by Christ’s undergoing Baptism himself – His immersion in the Jordan, and the subsequent proclamation of His identity (c.f.; Matthew 3:16-17) made clear the links between this moment and the whole grand narrative of our salvation, and made it a way for us to enter into that narrative.

All this is present in the background of John Keble’s poem, which takes for granted the efficacious nature of the Sacrament of Baptism, and the reasons why it conveys such awesome grace. He marvels at the fact that what looks like mere water to others is to us something made holy by words connecting it to the great mystery of our salvation – in the drops of water sprinkled upon the head of the baptised are contained centuries of history, moments of epiphany, acts of renewal and reconciliation, and all drawn together by the meeting of man and God in the Incarnate Christ. All this we are admitted into through our Baptism, and it is not surprising that it takes us a lifetime to work out and make real the implications of the ‘adopting Father love’ that we receive therein. In Christ we have been placed, and in Him are all the mysteries of God and man brought together in union – the holy water of the font is a gateway into this, and that is a humbling thing to consider:

 

Where is it mothers learn their love?—

   In every Church a fountain springs

      O’er which th’ Eternal Dove

         Hovers out softest wings.

 

What sparkles in that lucid flood

   Is water, by gross mortals eyed:

      But seen by Faith, ’tis blood

         Out of a dear Friend’s side.

 

A few calm words of faith and prayer,

   A few bright drops of holy dew,

      Shall work a wonder there

         Earth’s charmers never knew.

 

O happy arms, where cradled lies,

   And ready for the Lord’s embrace,

      That precious sacrifice,

         The darling of His grace!

 

Blest eyes, that see the smiling gleam

   Upon the slumbering features glow,

      When the life-giving stream

         Touches the tender brow!

 

Or when the holy cross is signed,

   And the young soldier duly sworn,

      With true and fearless mind

         To serve the Virgin-born.

 

But happiest ye, who sealed and blest

   Back to your arms your treasure take,

      With Jesus’ mark impressed

         To nurse for Jesus’ sake:

 

To whom—as if in hallowed air

   Ye knelt before some awful shrine—

      His innocent gestures wear

         A meaning half divine:

 

By whom Love’s daily touch is seen

   In strengthening form and freshening hue,

      In the fixed brow serene,

         The deep yet eager view.—

 

Who taught thy pure and even breath

   To come and go with such sweet grace?

      Whence thy reposing Faith,

         Though in our frail embrace?

 

O tender gem, and full of Heaven!

   Not in the twilight stars on high,

      Not in moist flowers at even

         See we our God so nigh.

 

Sweet one, make haste and know Him too,

   Thine own adopting Father love,

      That like thine earliest dew

         Thy dying sweets may prove.

George Herbert: Two Poems on the Holy Name of Jesus

To commemorate the Feast of the Most Holy Name of Jesus this weekend*, I have selected two poems by George Herbert, both of which deal in some way with that Holy Name. The first of these two is entitled Jesu, and employs an acrostic, so that the letters spelling the name of the title appear at various points throughout the text. Herbert also uses here a technique common at the time (John Donne used it quite a bit in his love poetry for example) wherein the poet uses the image of a fragmented heart to convey a sense of personal disintegration. This is not one of Herbert’s most powerful poems, but the techniques used are redirected toward sacred themes skilfully, and there is a pleasing tidiness to the work:

 

JESU is in my heart, his sacred name

Is deeply carved there: but th’other week

A great affliction broke the little frame,

Ev’n all to pieces, which I went to seek:

And first I found the corner, where Was J,

After, where E S, and next where U was graved.

When I had got these parcels, instantly

I sat me down to spell them, and perceived

That to my broken heart he was I ease you,

And to my whole is J E S U.

 

It is important to remember that the letters ‘J’ and ‘I’ were interchangeable in Herbert’s day, hence the play in the last two lines between ‘JESU’ and ‘I ease you’. Aside from this though, there is little trickiness involved in this poem, and the overall feeling of neatness does itself suggest to the reader a feeling of comfort or ease, both throughout and in its resolution. We begin with Our Lord’s ‘sacred name’ engraved into the poet’s heart, suggesting a deep personal relationship with Him, but upon the advent of some great tragedy, his heart is broken; finally, it is only through recourse to the Name of Jesus that his broken heart is restored. This has a two-fold meaning: firstly there is the way in which faith in Christ can effect healing after personal tragedy, but also it is the Holy Name of Jesus which saves – which puts back together the broken pieces of our disintegrated hearts in His grand work of redemption.

The second poem of Herbert’s on this theme is called Love-Joy, and this too has an acrostic running through it, albeit a simpler one, consisting of the letters J and C. What these letters might stand for is the topic of the poem, as two men stand discussing a bunch of grapes with these letters ‘anneal’d on every bunch’ (suggesting perhaps that they are looking at a stain-glassed window; church architecture is a favourite motif of Herbert’s) and come to different, but complementary conclusions:

 

As on a window late I cast mine eye,

I saw a vine drop grapes with J and C

Anneal’d on every bunch. One standing by

Ask’d what it meant. I (who am never loth

To spend my judgement) said, It seem’d to me

To be the body and the letters both

Of Joy and Charity. Sir, you have not miss’d,

The man reply’d; It figures JESUS CHRIST.

 

Again, there is a satisfying neatness to this poem (something which is not uncommon in Herbert’s poetry overall – he was a mean deeply desirous of order and simplicity, as is most powerfully evidenced in his wonderful poem A Wreath), and it has a certain familiar charm to it thanks to the conversational outline. There is however an added layer here, which makes it a slightly richer poem than Jesu, and which comes from the reference to vines and grapes. This invokes both John 15:1-17 (wherein Our Lord compares Himself to the Vine and the disciples to the fruit which that Vine produces) and of course the Holy Eucharist. The former ends (vv.9-13) with an injunction to both joy and charity, both of which are mentioned here, and the ‘body’ of these is of course the Presence of Christ in the Sacrament.

Herbert’s companion, in response to the question of what the letters ‘J’ and ‘C’ refer to, is presented to the reader in ambiguous terms (an ambiguity which is surely intended) – when the letters are decided to stand for Joy and Charity, he says in return that they stand for Jesus Christ, which could be thought to suggest naivety at the fact that the Holy Name of Jesus itself is the fullness of Joy and Charity, for His name bespeaks His character. However, that the reply is preceded by ‘Sir, you have not miss’d’ implies that the original interpretation had been correct, and that the addition of a second serves only to make the connection more clear. At any rate, the reader is left with no room for confusion – Jesus is the ‘body and the letters both’, the name and the Holy Sacrament, and He is the source of true joy and the fullness of Charity.

The Holy Name of Jesus, which means ‘God saves’, is not just a title, but a signification of the whole character and purpose of God. This is why Saint Matthew could write ‘you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins’ (Matthew 1:21) – as was common in the ancient world, names were given to point to the character of the one who received them, and the One who received the Name of Jesus was the Incarnation of God, who alone can deliver us from our sins; by calling on the Name of Jesus in faith, we thereby unite ourselves to this deeper reality. This is a reality that underpins the two poems above – God alone saves, and what we know of God we know in Jesus Christ; we know that He loved us first, indeed that He is Love, and that in Him alone is true joy, true love and true freedom.

 

*Celebrated on the Sunday between the 2nd and 5th of January after the reforms of Pope Saint Pius X, it was removed from the Calendar in 1969 by Pope Paul VI, only to be restored as an Optional Memorial in 2002, and it is now celebrated on January 3rd. Epiphany will be commemorated in many churches this Sunday (also due to Paul VI’s reforms), but I thought it appropriate to write about that topic on its actual date, January 6th.