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.

G. K. Chesterton: The Confused Comparison of Christianity and Buddhism

It is often casually said, with an air of anecdotal authority that belies the need for actual evidence, that Christianity and Buddhism are basically the same. However, the only singular aspect of either religion that is ever adduced to support this theory is that they both promote an ethic of non-violence; other than that the similarities they share are those common to most all religions – thus, the supposed similarity of the two perhaps says more about our indifference to genuine difference between religious systems, and our desire to further Westernise the scraps of actual Buddhist teaching that we find congenial, than it does about the two religions themselves. G. K. Chesterton encountered this theory of supposed similarity in his time as well, and had this to say in reply:

That Buddhism approves of mercy or of self-restraint is not to say that it is especially like Christianity; it is only to say that it is not utterly unlike all human existence. Buddhists disapprove in theory of cruelty or excess because all sane human beings disapprove of cruelty and excess. But to say that Buddhism and Christianity give the same philosophy of these things is simply false. All humanity does agree that we are in a net of sin. Most of humanity agrees that there is some way out. But as to what is the way out, I do not think that there are two institutions in the universe which contradict each other so flatly as Buddhism and Christianity.

Orthodoxy (1999), p.193, Hodder and Stoughton.

                Conversely to what we have led ourselves to believe, and what had begun to be believed in earnest during Chesterton’s lifetime, the only way in which Christianity is similar to Buddhism is in terms of its general approval of natural law and common moral intuition. When it comes to what kind of view of existence (and moreover, of salvation) they each promote though, they are almost complete opposites. According to his usual method of invoking imagery and gaining insights from what is most emblematic about a culture or religion (as opposed to conducting a systematic survey of all their features), Chesterton points to the types of saint that Christianity and Buddhism each produce, suggesting that through their expressions we see two drastically different views of life:

No two ideals could be more opposite than a Christian saint in a Gothic cathedral and a Buddhist saint in a Chinese temple. The opposition exists at every point; but perhaps the shortest statement of it is that the Buddhist saint always has his eyes shut, while the Christian saint always has them very wide open. The Buddhist saint has a sleek and harmonious body, but his eyes are heavy and sealed with sleep. The medieval saint’s body is wasted to its crazy bones, but his eyes are frightfully alive. There cannot be any real continuity between forces that produce symbols so different as that. Granted that both images are extravagances, are perversions of the pure creed, it must be a real divergence which could produce such opposite extravagances. The Buddhist is looking with a peculiar intentness inwards. The Christian is staring with a frantic intentness outwards. If we follow that clue steadily we shall find some interesting things.

ibid, p.194.

                The first interesting thing that Chesterton infers from these two opposing images is that Buddhism conceives of an essentially impersonal pantheism, and the world as illusory, so that salvation is an absorption into the ‘world-soul’ of which we are all really part by ridding ourselves of any misapprehension that the things of the world have real substance, or even that our own selves are real. This worldview, which counsels the elimination of desire in order to escape suffering, also means an elimination of love – we cannot love our neighbour if they do not really exist. This metaphysical melting pot is in direct contradiction to the Christian worldview which sees each soul as created uniquely by God, creation as a whole as something not only real but essentially good, and true, self-giving love between persons as the whole goal of life.

The other thing that Chesterton recognises is the practicalities that follow on from a view of life which is pantheistic, impersonal and fatalistic. A theology which sees no fundamental difference as existing between persons and ultimate reality as being akin to an eternally spinning wheel unable to be changed by our endeavours will inevitably give rise to quietism and social indifference. On the other hand, a theology that prizes the uniqueness of persons and venerates free will gives rise to all kinds of action and enterprise – particularly social reform. Christianity’s insistence that God is utterly different from His creation and transcends it by both kind and degree has led to a culture of political adventure and curiosity about what God has made; the Buddhist saint looks inward and changes little around him, whereas the Christian saint looks up and out in wonder, and moves mountains.

Christianity does of course also teach that God is immanent within His creation, but we live in times when the divine transcendence requires a great deal more emphasis – it is partly because we so commonly think of God in pantheistic terms that Christianity and Buddhism have been able to be compared at all in the first place. Nevertheless, as a reminder of Christianity’s insistence on the immanence of God, and of the subtle but important difference between that teaching and the view of Buddhism, this passage from Saint Augustine’s Confessions (Book VI, Chapter 10) serves as an eloquent summary:

Under your guidance I entered into the depths of my soul, and this I was able to do because your aid befriended me. I entered, and with the eye of my soul, such as it was, I saw the Light that never changes casting its rays over the same eye of my soul, over my mind. It was not the common light of day that is seen by the eye of every living thing of flesh and blood, nor was it some more spacious light of the same sort, as if the light of day were to shine far, far brighter than it does and fill all space with a vast brilliance. What I saw was something quite, quite different from any light we know on earth. It shone above my mind, but not in the way oil floats above the water or the sky hangs over the earth. It was above me because it was itself the Light that made me, and I was below because I was made by it.

Confessions of Saint Augustine (1974), pp.146-147, Penguin.

                Saint Augustine describes the deep introspection involved in Christian contemplation, and how in this process he is able to encounter God within him. However, there is a consistent insistence on the absolute distinction between Creator and creature – God may be closer to us than we are to ourselves (to borrow again from Augustine) but He remains different from us, and we remain, each one of us, something separate and unique, that He draws back to Himself as a hen gathers its chicks under its wings. The Buddhist metaphysic however, would have us be essentially one with what we meet within, and our final goal as being more akin to droplets of water returning to the ocean. Unfortunately, this is a view of Heaven which one hears with increasing frequency in our culture, even from Christians.

Pantheistic immanence, impersonality, an ultimate lack of distinction between the things of the world (including the people in it), are all key to Buddhism, and are all antithetical to the way that Christianity sees the world. These differences underpin the two religions and are manifested in the way that those who truly believe their tenets look at things (as expressed by the two types of saint Chesterton noted). This way of seeing the world, for the devout Buddhist, finds its culmination in the approach to the things in it, and the desire we have for them:

Perhaps a more exact statement would be that Buddha was a man who made a metaphysical discipline; which might even be called a psychological discipline. He proposed a way of escaping from all this recurrent sorrow; and that was simply by getting rid of the delusion that is called desire. It was emphatically not that we should get what we want better by restraining our impatience for part of it, or that we should get it in a better way or in a better world. It was emphatically that we should leave off wanting it. If once a man realised that there is no really no reality, that everything, including his soul, is in dissolution at every instant, he would anticipate disappointment and be intangible to change, existing (in so far as he could be said to exist) in a sort of ecstasy of indifference. The Buddhists call this beatitude and we will not stop our story to argue the point; certainly to us it is indistinguishable from despair.

The Everlasting Man (2010), pp.87-88, Martino Publishing.

                Chesterton draws together here all those aspects of Buddhism which are key to its outlook and in which it also so happens to differ almost completely from Christianity, and he highlights their fundamental difference by showing how these aspects shape one’s view of life. Basically, if one was really consistent in following the tenets of Buddhism, this would lead to a philosophy that is actually against life – against the reality of our existence and the rightness of loving it, as well as the things and people in it. Thankfully, not only are most Western admirers of Buddhism remarkably ignorant as to what it really teaches (and so do not base their ethics on a philosophy of negation and renunciation), but Buddhism itself is happily inconsistent on this front as well – despite believing in the illusory nature of all things and therefore the ultimate relativism of all our moral intuition, it still counsels its followers to act as if people are people and desire for their well-being is something that is worthwhile and…well, desirable.

The conflation of Christianity and Buddhism themselves though, results from a confusion amongst ourselves as to what either of the two religions really stand for, which confusion itself stems from an assumption that all religions are basically the same and are able to be reduced to a set of common platitudes about niceness to one another and inner peace within ourselves. Also, our obsession with increasing comfort and avoiding suffering (to the extent that this shapes the moral choices we make and even the moral frameworks – such as they are – that we propose for ourselves to inhabit), has doubtless led to a widespread sympathy for a religion that recommends abstraction from the world as a means of escaping suffering completely. Again, we can be thankful (on this front at least) that our age is as inconsistent as it is fickle, and most people who subscribe to a world-denying philosophy do not really act as if the world is not real. Nevertheless, this confusion points to a spiritual sickness and intellectual torpor from which we have yet to emerge. Let us hope and pray another Chesterton (or his words raised up again) to appear and shake us to our senses.

The Abiding Relevance of Saint Augustine

As today is Saint Augustine’s feast day, and he is one of my favourite saints, I have spent the last few days trying to decide which aspect of his teaching represented him the best, and so what to focus on in writing about him. I considered the breadth and depth of his writings – on grace, love, the Church and its divine authority, the Eucharist, the sacraments in general, the relationship between the Church and the surrounding culture, the nature of God and His omniscience, the Incarnation. But the process of trying to decide what feature of his teaching to present was too daunting – Saint Augustine wrote too much, and on too many subjects, for his thought to be adequately summarised in one single blog post, least of all by me.

Nevertheless, I do think that there is a common core of Augustine’s thought, a foundational impulse of sorts, to which we can look if we want to understand this great Doctor of the Church, and which has an ongoing relevance for all ages. The essence of this impulse is encapsulated in two of his most famous sayings, the first of which is:

Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.

Confessions of Saint Augustine, Book I, Chapter I.

The second passage, which is in a sense an outworking and elaboration of what is written above, describes the sense in which this restlessness that Augustine found within himself was drawn out by God – the way in which the saint was gradually drawn away from the things of the world and his own tendency for self-justification, and towards God Himself:

Belatedly I loved thee, O Beauty so ancient and so new, belatedly I loved thee. For see, thou wast within and I was without, and I sought thee out there. Unlovely, I rushed heedlessly among the lovely things thou hast made. Thou wast with me, but I was not with thee. These things kept me far from thee; even though they were not at all unless they were in thee. Thou didst call and cry aloud, and didst force open my deafness. Thou didst gleam and shine, and didst chase away my blindness. Thou didst breathe fragrant odours and I drew in my breath; and now I pant for thee. I tasted, and now I hunger and thirst. Thou didst touch me, and I burned for thy peace.

ibid, Book X, Chapter XXVII.

            In these two excerpts I believe we can truly see the heart of Saint Augustine’s thought, belief and devotion. He was a man who sought unrelentingly for Truth, and who, in his Confessions, explored his own personal journey by searching for it in ways that display a profound understanding of human psychology and the innate impulse for God that resides within us all. This impulse, which with Augustine did not start out as a desire for God per se, but for the True, the Good and the Beautiful, is one that people in all ages should be able to identify with, and his exploration of the yearning for these three, which led ultimately to their identification with God, provides a compelling reason for belief – one which confirms the path of purely rational argument, but goes beyond it, to the depths of our very being.

Our persons do not just consist of intellect, and far less do they consist of a kind of disembodied, impersonal reason that one gets the impression many non-believers of a particular stripe appeal to today. We are also creatures of will, and our wills are seldom (if ever) commanded by the reason alone, but are directed by a complex mixture of rationality, affection, and imagination. Saint Augustine’s recognition that within this complex mixture that makes up each one of us is a deep desire for God, and that this desire is something that emanates from the whole person, moreover from the very heart of the person, is an important corrective to the idea that we can simply reason our way to belief (though again, this is not to discount the role of reason in that process).

That our hearts are ‘restless, until they find their rest in thee’ is something that Augustine, through a penetrating analysis of his own experience and reflection on the experiences common to others, saw as a basic fact of existence. There is a desire for God that will not go away, and cannot, no matter what we tell ourselves, be written off as just wishful thinking. This desire commends itself to our will, conscience and intellect as something that reaches out to ultimate reality itself, to the source and ground of our very being, and thus it is something that, if not allowed to express itself naturally, will be misdirected to lower things, either things sinful in and of themselves, or ‘the lovely things thou hast made’.

That the existence of God is the final end of all our creaturely endeavour, and that recognition of not only His existence, but His sovereignty over us is to accept our proper place in the order of things and so give us lasting peace, is not something that gains much currency in contemporary Western culture. However, having spent a great deal of time with non-believing friends and family, as well as being witness to some bizarre and frenzied invective against religious believers online, as well as frequent wilful misrepresentation of what believers have said or actually believe, I am gradually coming to the conclusion that a lot of the reasons given for atheism are not reasons at all, but excuses designed to obscure that innate desire for and knowledge of God that Saint Augustine describes.

Recognising the existence of God is to recognise that we are not masters of our own destiny, and that we are beholden to a standard of conduct that we cannot alter but must simply submit to, and it seems that a lot of atheism, as well as the popularity of moral relativism, is down to this. Again, reasons are presented, and we may differ about the viability of these reasons ad infinitum, getting nowhere with it. But what is constant in the unbelief I have encountered is a deep resentment that God should exist, as opposed to a purely rational conviction that He doesn’t. The hostility of so many atheists is due to the fact that deep down, they are aware of what Augustine witnessed to in his Confessions, and that, if they open the door to God just a little, they might then find themselves saying ‘I tasted, and now I hunger and thirst’.

This is not just a problem for non-believers. Many Christians spend a great deal of time distracting themselves, and this is in great part because we know that to spend some quality time before the Lord will result in His uncovering our lack of virtue, our lack of faith, our weaknesses and sinful tendencies – we do not want to be exposed before the light, so we hide from Him. The innate knowledge of God – of who He is and what consequent obligations are placed on us as creatures – will not go away, and nor will our desire for Him. But we can mask this with many things, and such masking is at the root of much of our frivolity, as well as much of our despair. Having suppressed a natural desire for the one thing we know can give us lasting happiness, we either lose ourselves in trivia, or are left to face the schism we have caused in our souls.

Saint Augustine realised also that ultimately, whilst we can reason to a knowledge that God exists, and that He is the source of all Goodness and Truth, it requires an act of the will in order to have faith in Him – because to have faith does not just mean to assent to an idea, but to trust in and submit to God. Augustine recognised that it was not enough for him to believe who God is and that He exists – he must also change his life, and this meant giving up the tendency to pride which we all share. He would ask God to be made chaste, but not yet, and this request is played out again and again in the lives of those who refuse to believe at all, and those of us who believe but do not want to accept the change in life that follows.

Augustine’s recognition that within each of us there is a deep desire for God, and that the world around us – the awe we feel before creation, the call of our conscience, the desire to know Truth – speaks to us of Him, that ‘day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge…their words to the end of the world’ (Psalm 19:2,4), can speak to each generation, because it is a constant feature of human experience. New arguments for God’s existence (and arguments to the contrary) appear, or old ones are refined; the Church produces new saints, and continues to consist of sinners; fads come then pass, and new ideas grip the public imagination. But the desire for ultimate things, the intuitive sense we all have that this life is meaningful, that Truth and Goodness exist objectively, and that these intimations find their resolution in God, does not pass.

People will always reject God, and will always suppress the desire for Him, finding new and various ways to do so, because with the desire we all have for that ‘Beauty so ancient and so new’ comes the knowledge that to meet Him and give ourselves to Him also means to change our lives, to give up our false ideas of autonomy and put away whatever pet sins we might have. The writings of Saint Augustine though, are a powerful testimony to the force of this desire, to the fact that, whilst it can be misdirected it can never be killed, and also to the relentless desire of God that we do finally find our rest in Him.

Corpus Christi: The Heart of the Faith

Today (though unfortunately in many dioceses moved to this coming Sunday), the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ (or ‘Corpus Christi’), is when we celebrate our belief in Jesus’ being fully present – body, blood, soul and divinity – in the Eucharist. It is also the day we celebrate the Eucharist’s institution, as on Holy Thursday the focus is more on the departure of Christ from this world, with His ensuing Passion and death on the Cross looming in the foreground; as well as the washing of the feet, which directs us towards Jesus’ commandments to love and serve one another at the Last Supper.

Today’s feast is a more joyful occasion, as we remember the great blessing we have of being able to commune with Our Lord in the Eucharist, the great Sacrament of Love and Unity. Underpinning this joy though, is the faith that the bread and wine on the altar, once consecrated, are no longer in essence bread and wine, but have become the Body and Blood of Christ. Without this faith, Corpus Christi becomes at best an empty sham, at worst an exhibition of idolatry. So then, for today’s commemoration, I have chosen passages from two of the Church Fathers, which contain powerful exhortations to faith in the Real Presence, and may (I hope) increase the faith of anyone reading them.

The first is from Saint Irenaeus (130 – 202), in his great work Adverses Haereses (sections 17.5 – 18.6) where he emphasises the sacrificial nature of the Mass (basing many of his reflections on Malachi 1:10-11) and the need we have to partake in Holy Communion to receive the graces of redemption. He assumes throughout the real change in the elements – that whilst earthly appearances remain, the substance of the bread and wine have now become that of Our Lord:

Our Lord commanded his disciples to offer to God the first fruits of his own creation, not because God was in need of them, but to enable the disciples to bear fruit and show gratitude. He took a piece of creation – bread – and gave thanks, saying: “This is my body.” Similarly with the cup, also a part of creation to which we belong – he declared that it was his blood, and taught that is was the new oblation of the new covenant. This oblation was handed on to the Church by the apostles, and she offers is throughout the world to the God who gives us our sustenance, as the first-fruits of his gifts under the new covenant…

…Accordingly it is the Church’s offering, the offering that the Lord has taught us to make throughout the world, which is counted as a pure sacrifice before God and which is acceptable to him. He needs no sacrifice from us, but the offerer is himself glorified through his offering, if his gift is accepted…

…We offer him what is his own, and thereby proclaim the harmonious fellowship and union of flesh and Spirit. When the bread, which comes from the earth, receives the invocation of God, it is no longer ordinary bread; it is eucharist – composed of two elements, one earthly and one heavenly. Similarly, when our bodies partake of the eucharist, they are no longer corruptible; they have the hope of resurrection.

 taken from Documents in Early Christian Thought (2005), pp.183-184, 187, Cambridge University Press.

            The next passage is from a later period in the Church’s life, but from another one of her most significant thinkers – Saint Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430). In an Easter morning sermon (number 272), preaching to the newly baptised, Augustine discusses the relationship between the Body of Christ upon the altar and the mystical Body of Christ, the Church. His discussion links in with that of Saint Irenaeus insofar as they share a sense that the Sacrifice that Jesus offers to the Father includes all the sacrifices of those who unite themselves to Him – it is a deeply participatory view of both the Eucharist and the Church, and again assumes a very realist sacramental theology throughout:

What you now see on God’s altar, you also saw last night. But you have not yet learnt what it is, what it signifies, or how great is the reality of which it comprises the sacrament. What you see is bread and a cup; that is what your eyes tell you. But what your faith (as yet uninstructed) insists is that the bread is the body of Christ and the cup the blood of Christ…

…Here too, let us not use any arguments of our own but continue to listen to the apostle himself and to what he has said about the sacrament: “One bread, one body we are, many that we are” [1 Cor. 10:17]. Understand and rejoice: unity, truth, virtue, love. “One bread.” Who is this one bread? The “one body many that we are”. Remember that bread is not made from a single grain, but from many…

…It is the same with the wine. Remember, my brothers, how wine is made. There are many grapes hanging on the vine, but the juice of the grapes is mixed up together in unity. In this the Lord Christ was giving us a picture of ourselves. He wanted us to belong to him; at his table he consecrated the mystery of his peace and of our unity. He who receives the mystery of unity but does not keep the bond of peace receives not a mystery that will profit him but a testimony that will witness against him.


            In these two passages we see the truth of the statement that the Eucharist is the ‘source and summit of the Christian life’ – it is the means by which we can offer ourselves up to God purely and efficaciously, and it is the bond which unites us together at a more profound level than we could ever possibly realise, in and through Jesus Himself. Therefore it is imperative that Christ is affirmed to be present in the Eucharist not just spiritually, but bodily as well – His whole nature as both man and God. Anything less is not the whole Christ, and we would no longer have any grounds for establishing this deep unity, or for offering up our sacrifices to God.

Furthermore, the Eucharist is the Sacrament of Charity, and of Peace – when received in a spirit of true faith and with a properly examined conscience, it will unite us further to the life of God, helping us to become more like Him and to exhibit the virtues of Peace and Charity. Again, if it is not the whole Christ that is present in the consecrated elements, we will not receive this new life within us. Thankfully though, through the guaranteed lines of Apostolic Succession and the preservation of Truth in His Church, God has made it so we can be sure that Jesus really is there – on our altars, and in the monstrance. As we look to Him there today, let us look with the eyes of faith, and know that Our Lord is with us.

Saint Augustine: Love and the Will

The relationship between the grace of God and the free will of man is one that has led to many heated debates, often to try and reconcile those who would place the emphasis too much on one side than on the other. The area in which it is most difficult to resolve the two elements is in the matter of faith itself: how do we come to believe – is it by the grace of God or by our own free will? Ultimately, the dilemma remains beyond any neat solution, given that the operations of grace work on and have their source in a level beyond human comprehension, and also because our free will is itself a gift of God.

One thing we can say therefore, is that in any assessment of how grace and free will relate to one another, the grace of God must be pre-eminent, simply because of who God is and who we are. But, from the human point of view, we still want to know how free our free will is – our will (indeed our whole being) is a gift of God, but given that this is the case, when we come to believe, to make the act of the will to have faith in Christ, is this act of the will free for us in any meaningful sense? It is important again to note that there is no absolute solution to this problem – we cannot see things from God’s perspective, and to a certain extent we do have to accept that we are His creatures, receiving all (including our free will) from Him.

However, there is a way in which we can make sense of the issue from the point of view of the one who comes to faith, and this means of understanding is provided by Saint Augustine of Hippo. In one of his homilies on the Gospel of John, he discusses the famous saying of Christ, that ‘No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him’ (6:44), and makes the following conclusion:

I say it is not enough to be drawn by the will; thou art drawn even by delight. What is it to be drawn by delight? “Delight thyself in the Lord, and He shall give thee the desires of thy heart.” There is a pleasure of the heart to which that bread of heaven is sweet. Moreover, if it was right in the poet to say, “Every man is drawn by his own pleasure,”—not necessity, but pleasure; not obligation, but delight,—how much more boldly ought we to say that a man is drawn to Christ when he delights in the truth, when he delights in blessedness, delights in righteousness, delights in everlasting life, all which Christ is?

Or is it the case that, while the senses of the body have their pleasures, the mind is left without pleasures of its own? If the mind has no pleasures of its own, how is it said, “The sons of men shall trust under the cover of Thy wings: they shall be well satisfied with the fullness of Thy house; and Thou shalt give them drink from the river of Thy pleasure. For with Thee is the fountain of life; and in Thy light shall we see light”? Give me a man that loves, and he feels what I say. Give me one that longs, one that hungers, one that is travelling in this wilderness, and thirsting and panting after the fountain of his eternal home; give such, and he knows what I say. But if I speak to the cold and indifferent, he knows not what I say. Such were those who murmured among themselves.

from Homilies on the Gospel of John, Tractate XXVI.

            Saint Augustine here reorients the issue from one of an arbitrarily free will versus an overpowering divine grace to one of the will as free, but conditioned by what it most desires. Our wills do not exist in a vacuum, but choose certain things because we are attracted to them. We do this freely, but it is not an act of cool selection, weighing up the pros and cons of each option without any bias one way or the other – we prefer certain options because we desire them more. What each one of us desires at any given moment will be the result of a complex admixture of the character we have developed through a history of prior choices made, and the beliefs we already hold, but it will still be free.

This is perhaps clearer if we look at temptation – we often desire things that we know are not good for us, but despite the powerful force these desires exert upon us, if we desire truth and goodness (and for the believer – Christ) more than these things, we will avoid sin. If we prefer what we are being tempted by to the Good, we will succumb. Thus we freely resist the sinful desires, but are only be able to do so consistently if we truly love the Good more than the things that tempt us. This is why it is necessary for us to constantly renew and strengthen our relationship with God, so that our desire for Him remains strong enough for the things of the world not to overpower us.

The most excellent example in everyday life of how our will remains free yet is conditioned by what attracts it, is in the case of love. When we love, we feel ourselves to be at our most free – the love I feel for another is more truly my decision than any other I have yet made; but at the same time, I am overpowered by the love I feel and thus the overwhelming attraction for the other that is engendered by my love (and is indeed part of it) can be said to have drawn me outside of myself. It is with this in mind that Saint Augustine says ‘Give me a man that loves, and he feels what I say’, and in his homily he develops this point with regard to the fact that if this can be our experience in life, how much more can it be so when we encounter the Truth:

One whom the Father has drawn says: “Thou art Christ, Son of the living God.” Not as a prophet, not as John, not as some great and just man, but as the only, the equal, “Thou art Christ, Son of the living God.” See that he was drawn, and drawn by the Father. “Blessed art thou, Simon Bar Jonas: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but my Father who is in heaven.” This revealing is itself the drawing. Thou holdest out a green twig to a sheep, and thou drawest it. Nuts are shown to a child, and he is attracted; he is drawn by what he runs to, drawn by loving it, drawn without hurt to the body, drawn by a cord of the heart. If, then, these things, which among earthly delights and pleasures are shown to them that love them, draw them, since it is true that “every man is drawn by his own pleasure,” does not Christ, revealed by the Father, draw? For what does the soul more strongly desire than the truth? For what ought it to have a greedy appetite, with which to wish that there may be within a healthy palate for judging the things that are true, unless it be to eat and drink wisdom, righteousness, truth, eternity?


            This of course raises the question of why some receive the revelation from the Father which draws us to Christ, and some do not. But, given the context of attraction and desire, we can see that despite it being the case that everyone has an inborn desire and love for truth, this innate desire is occluded in some people. As each person’s character is something partly formed by the decisions made over a lifetime, it is clear that in many subjects the choices they have made will muffle the innate desire for truth, and other desires will have become preeminent in that person. This is part of the tragedy of sin – that it has a compound effect on us, and makes it harder for us to see light as light.

This is not to say that for such people there is no chance of the light ever getting through – by no means, as with God all things are possible, and noone can tell how deeply (or not) the truth seeking faculties planted within us all are buried within another. It is simply to affirm what was stated at the beginning of this post – that there is a complex and mysterious relationship between grace and free will, and that our cooperation with and rejection of the grace of God will have some effect upon our future ability to respond to it. But, whilst the relationship between grace and free will remains essentially mysterious, Saint Augustine’s meditations here do provide us with some means of understanding our own personal decision to believe in Christ.

It is not an arbitrary choice of a naked, autonomous will, separated from any real context; nor is it the imposition of God upon us against our will. Rather it is an act of love – we choose what we desire most, what we love most, and in seeing Christ for who He really is, we see the fulfillment of all we know to be of value in this world and the next. In seeing Him this way, we are overwhelmed as the lover is by the beloved, and though more liberated than ever before by this new knowledge, we are irresistibly drawn to Him – we cannot but say with Saint Peter, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’ (Matthew 16:16). This is both an utterly gracious gift of God to us, and yet also the greatest enrichment and awakening of our will.

Saint Augustine on the Ascension of Our Lord

Today is the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord, where we remember Jesus’ final return to the Father in Heaven, as recounted in Acts 1:9 – an event further testified to in 1 Timothy 3:16 and 1 Peter 3:22. Further on in Acts, Saint Peter, in one of his addresses, affirms that Jesus was ‘exalted at the right hand of God’ (2:33), and uses this fact as confirmation that He has fulfilled the promises made regarding the Messiah in Psalm 110. The fact that Jesus is now at God’s ‘right hand’ is something that, apart from the scriptural testimony, we also receive as an article of the Faith via the Apostle’s Creed, which says that Jesus is now ‘seated at the right hand of the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead’.

So, it would seem that the Ascension is a vital part of Christian belief – yet it is something that often becomes sidelined in discussions of salvation history. Part of this is undoubtedly because modern exegetes have become embarrassed by language which apparently describes Jesus as being literally enthroned next to the Father – an issue which, to my mind, does a great disservice to the majority of believers, who have no problem in accepting Scripture’s use of pictorial language such as this, or of entering into its essential meaning (i.e.; that Jesus has departed from our spatio-temporal world, and returned to the heavenly realms from whence he came, raising up with Him the human nature that He assumed in the Incarnation; the ‘right hand’ language representing His eternal subordination to the Father).

Another reason however, may be that in Scripture itself the Ascension is seen as continuous with the Resurrection, something particularly noticeable in Saint John, who presents it as something both present and yet to come. This can be seen most clearly in Jesus’ exchange with Mary Magdalene, where He says ‘Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’ (John 20:17). This, I would submit, is how Saint Luke sees things too, given that in the twenty-fourth chapter of his gospel and the first chapter of Acts, he alternates between present and future versions of events, the latter often filling in the details of the former.

Saint Augustine seemed to share this view of the Ascension being continuous with the Resurrection, but was also very keen to affirm its role as the seal of the whole process, as something without which the previous events would have been to no avail. In a homily given on the Feast of the Ascension* he says:

This is that festival which confirms the grace of all the festivals together, without which the profitableness of every festival would have perished. For unless the Saviour had ascended into heaven, his Nativity would have come to nothing…and his Passion would have borne no fruit for us, and his most holy Resurrection would have been useless.

What Saint Augustine says here resonates with the passage in Ephesians 4:10, where Saint Paul says that ‘He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things’ – i.e.; that by ascending into Heaven, and taking our human nature up with Him into the heavenly places, He completed the process of redemption by reclaiming His place as rightful sovereign of the universe, so that He might be present to us in a different way. If He had not so returned, the process would not have been completed, and as Jesus said in John 16:7, ‘it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you’.

By taking up our human nature with Him into the heavenly realms, Jesus also ensured that in the fullness of all things, human beings would be restored to their rightful and intended place as vice-regents of God’s creation (c.f.; Genesis 1:26-27). Saint Augustine, in another homily on the Ascension, affirms this point thus:

He did not leave heaven when he came down to us; nor did he withdraw from us when he went up again into heaven. The fact that he was in heaven even while he was on earth is borne out by his own statement: “No one has ever ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man, who is in heaven.”

These words are explained by our oneness with Christ, for he is our head and we are his body. No one ascended into heaven except Christ because we also are Christ: he is the Son of Man by his union with us, and we by our union with him are the sons of God. So the Apostle says: Just as the human body, which has many members, is a unity, because all the different members make one body, so is it also with Christ. He too has many members, but one body.

Sermo de Ascensione Domini, Mai 98, 1-2, PLS 2, 494-495.

            In the Incarnation, the Word of God united our human nature to His divine person, and in the Ascension this union was completed, our humanity being forever enjoined to God through our baptism, so that, as Augustine says, ‘we by our union with him are the sons of God’. The Ascension is thus truly a seal and guarantee of our redemption – the confirmation that He who entered into the depths of our experience has torn down the veil between God and man, and insofar as we fulfil our baptismal vows and commit ourselves to Him, that we are even now partakers of His heavenly glory.

*Frustratingly, although I have taken this quote from a reputable Encyclopaedia of Christian Doctrine and History, and have found it cited in many other places, I cannot find an actual reference for the homily in question. I would be grateful if anyone knows of one!

The Holy Trinity in Three Verses

The dogma of the Holy Trinity is not a dry philosophical abstraction without proper foundation in Scripture, nor an encroachment by pagan influences into ‘pure’ monotheism. Its formulation is at least partly couched in a philosophy and vocabulary rooted in Greek thought and language; however, to admit this is simply to admit that this is the world in which the early Church lived, and thus the terminology and concepts with which it had to work; if Christianity had developed at a different time and place, it would have used different terms and concepts.

As it happens, one could make a good case that the Church being born in such a time and place was greatly fortuitous, and that Greek language and thought are particularly well suited to theological discourse, but that is by the by – things happened when they did, and there is no a priori reason to assume that the surrounding culture distorted the biblical witness or the apostolic faith in any substantive way. In fact, when one examines the scriptural data most often used to support Trinitarian doctrine, the motifs and ideas underlying it seem to have a much richer establishment in those texts than in anything found in Greek philosophy – I shall address these texts briefly in due course.

An important point to note firstly though, is that the dogma of the Holy Trinity, whilst seeming to be clear in Scripture retrospectively, is by no means obvious from its witness. Whilst it may be hard for those of us who have grown up with the orthodox Creeds to see how one could do better justice to the scriptural data, it is clear both from the debates of the early Church and from the various non-Trinitarian groups that emerged in the wake of the Protestant Reformation that it is indeed very possible to do so. As an aside, both these cases (early Church and Reformation) are excellent illustrations of both the need for recognition of a regula fidei  in developing and interpreting doctrine, and the interpretive chaos inherent in the sola scriptura hermeneutic.

Despite the dogma not being clearly evident in Scripture, it is however possible to see how the Church eventually came to that conclusion. It all revolves around the figure of Jesus – who He claimed to be, the intimate relationship with the Father that He taught, and the work of the Holy Spirit (also referred to in personal terms), intrinsically linked to the person of Jesus. When one considers these points, and also sees them in the context of how Jesus was known (i.e.; a figure recognised as human, but also worthy of worship and capable of being prayed to) in the light of Easter and Pentecost, it can be seen that the dogma of the Holy Trinity is the only place the early Church could indeed end up and remained faithful to all these central issues.

That the apostolic Church itself may have found these concepts hard to articulate is easy to appreciate, given that the vast majority had come from a Jewish background, and that the sheer newness of what had happened in and through Jesus was still reverberating through their lives – they were too busy living out that early wave of mission to sit down and decide doctrinal specifics; the dust had yet to settle. Given that this was the case, it is then remarkable how much Trinitarian potential exists within the New Testament. Here are a few examples (to set beside the obvious case of Matthew 28:19):

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one’ (1 Corinthians 12:4-6).

But it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has commissioned us; he has put his seal upon us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee’ (2 Corinthians 1:21-22)

And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying “Abba! Father!”’ (Galatians 4:6)

So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit’ (Ephesians 2:19-22)

But we are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God chose you from the beginning to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. To this he called you through the gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (2 Thessalonians 2:13-14)

but when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, which he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour’ (Titus 3:4-6)

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappado’cia, Asia, and Bithyn’ia, chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood: May grace and peace be multiplied to you’ (1 Peter:1-2)

As well as the above, there are also plentiful examples of the close relationship between Jesus and the Father (c.f.; Matthew 11:27; John 1:1; 1 Corinthians 8:5-6; Philippians 2:5-7; Colossians 1:15-20; Hebrews 1:1-4), which do not mention the Holy Spirit explicitly, but which heavily imply an association with Him when read in the light of other passages mentioning the Spirit’s relationship with either the Father or the Son (including, but not limited to, the passages quoted above).

The main characteristic shared by the above quotations though, is that they are reflections on a recurrent pattern of divine activity experienced by the early Christians – the apostolic writers clearly felt that they could not do justice to the entirety of that experience without involving all three divine persons. It was by reflecting upon this witness, and the continued experience of the same pattern of divine activity working within the Church as it developed over the years, that led to the Fathers formulating the dogma that we still use today.

Given all that I have related above, I would now like to conclude by examining three verses (John 16:13-15) that I have not seen used as scriptural support for Trinitarian doctrine throughout the debates in the early Church or elsewhere later on (this is only in my reading anyway – so no guarantee by any means!), but that seem to me to capture the essential nature of the dogma of the Holy Trinity. The verses are as follows:

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

Here we have Jesus telling the disciples about the arrival of the Holy Spirit in the latter days, and telling them that the Spirit will guide them into all truth – He will be able to do this because He will not speak on His own authority. The implication then is that, just as the Son receives His authority from the Father, yet is ‘one’ with Him, so the Spirit receives His authority from another, but this other is also someone who He shares a profound unity with – ‘whatever he hears he will speak’ implies a closeness with the one from whom He receives the truth that He will then impart to the disciples.

Then we read that the Spirit will glorify Jesus, just as many times throughout John’s Gospel we have read that Jesus will glorify the Father – the Spirit will be able to do this because He will ‘take what is mine and declare it to you’, now implying with even greater force that the Spirit is in a relationship with the Son of such closeness that He can receive and transmit what properly belongs to the Son. Again, Jesus uses language very similar to this to describe His close relationship with the Father.

After Jesus tells the disciples that the Spirit has access to what properly belongs to Him, he says to them that ‘all that the Father has is mine’. Combining this with the preceding verses, we can see that just as the Spirit has access to what is the Son’s, so does the Son have access to all that is of the Father – therefore, the Spirit has access to all that properly belongs to both the Father and the Son. If one takes this pattern of interpersonal relationship between the three persons elucidated by Jesus, and also remembers how similar the language He uses to describe these relationships is to the Father-Son language used elsewhere in John’s Gospel, it seems that within these three verses there resides a compelling means for both supporting and explicating Trinitarian doctrine.

One final point – Jesus says about the Holy Spirit that ‘whatever he hears he will speak’. This is deeply consonant with the role that the Fathers (particularly Saint Augustine) finally discerned for the Spirit within the Holy Trinity; the bond of community, dialogue and love between the Father and the Son. If the Father is conceived of as the Lover, and the Son as the Beloved, then the Spirit is the bond of Love between them; similarly, if the Father is seen as the One who communicates, and the Son as the One who is communicated (the Word) and who returns that Word to the Father, the Holy Spirit can be seen as the pulsating course of exchange and dialogue between the two, so that it can not only be said that He ‘hears’ this exchange, but that He is that exchange.

All this of course lacks the sophistication and clarification that would be required to properly expound the three verses and relate them exactly to orthodox doctrine (particularly with respect to the Holy Spirit, who is so notoriously hard to describe). However, it does seem to me that in John 16:13-15 we have a remarkably clear description of much of what makes the Holy Trinity what it is – the oneness of the persons, their sharing everything each has with the others, and the pattern of self-giving and relatedness between them that both constitutes the nature of each person and makes concrete our claim that God is Love.